06.29.15

SCHUMER: FARMERS COULD EXPERIENCE ECONOMIC PERIL & AVERAGE PRICE OF VEGETABLES COULD RISE, UNLESS ORLEANS COUNTY FARMERS GET MUCH NEEDED WORKERS TO TEND CROPS; SHORTAGE OF WORKERS PUTS FARMERS & CONSUMERS IN JEOPARDY; SENATOR URGES FEDS TO IMMEDIATELY FIX BACKLOG OF WORKERS CAUSED BY JUNE 9TH COMPUTER GLITCH

Already-Struggling Family Farms In Orleans County Do Not Have Enough Workers To Harvest Their Zucchini, Yellow Squash, Cucumbers and More This Season – If Legal Temp Ag-Worker Backlog Isn’t Fixed, Apple Farms Could Be Hit Next; Farms Could Be Left Stranded While Crops Are Rotting In The Fields and Consumers Face Higher Prices

 Schumer Says A State Department Computer Failure Has Prevented The U.S. From Issuing Thousands Of Temporary Working Visas For Workers to Pick the Crops, Leaving Upstate NY Farmers Stranded As Summer Harvest Begins

 Schumer: Crisis Could Get Even Worse Unless State Department Acts; Consumers & Family Farms Will Suffer

Today, at Anthony Piedimonte Farms, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer, in light of the June 9 crash of the federal system that processes temporary farm-working visas, joined local farmers and urged the U.S. Department of State to fix the computer glitch backlog that has stalled applications and prevented farms across NY State from accessing the legal temporary seasonal workers needed to harvest their crops this season. Schumer pressed the State Department to quickly fix this problem, which has resulted in a huge backlog of visa requests and left New York State farms, including 18 growers in Orleans County alone who are counting on these workers this year, from being able to hire the legal temporary farm workers needed to harvest their zucchini, yellow squash, and cucumbers now. What’s more, Schumer said, is apple farms could be hit next if the glitch backlog isn’t fixed and cleared in time for this summer harvest season. Schumer said this could leave farms stranded while crops are sitting, rotting in the fields because they did not have enough legal temporary workers to pick the crops in time. Schumer said the already-struggling and understaffed farms across Upstate NY could have a difficult time meeting the demands of supermarkets if less crops are picked this season due to the backlog, which could also result in a potential price jump for consumers purchasing vegetables and other crops and potentially less profit for farms throughout NY State.  

“Farmers across Upstate New York consider the H-2A visa program a lifeline for getting the temporary, legal workers they need to help pick crops during the harvest months. Without this program, they will be stranded and unable to meet the high demand for their crops, and potential profits could wither on the vine,” said Schumer. “And while the State Department has fixed the glitch, the fact is, every day, these H-2A visas were building up in the pipeline and creating an even bigger backlog. So State can't rest easy even now – we need all hands on deck to beat back the backlog so our farms can get the workers they need and consumers will not have to suffer from increased prices for eating healthy.”

Schumer explained that on June 9, the State Department hardware system that performs national security checks began failing and, three weeks later, the problem was only just resolved. This computer glitch led to a failure in the central State Department database that processes background checks for visa applications, including the H-2A visa. Schumer said these types of visas are typically given to temporary agricultural workers who are allowed to work and live in the United States for the duration of their employment. This program is what allows NY State farms to access the legal temporary seasonal workers needed to harvest their seasonal crops. This glitch prevented the State Department system from receiving the biometric information necessary, such as fingerprints, to complete background checks on these H-2A visa applicants. As a result, Schumer said, the backup has farmers across NY State worried the backlog will not be cleared in time for them to hire the workers they need to prevent crops, and therefore profits, from rotting on the vine.

While the problem is being addressed, Schumer asked Secretary Kerry to expedite H-2A visa applications, add additional shifts in consulate offices to handle more employees and increase the number of interview times for applicants until the backlog is cleared. Schumer also asked the State Department to conduct a review to see what preventative measures can be implemented to avoid a future crash. Schumer said this technical problem has halted the processing of H-2A visas, putting tremendous strains on farms that rely on temporary workers to pick crops each season. NY State Department of Labor data shows that, currently, 182 NY State farms are planning to apply for H-2A workers this year. Of these farms, 48 are in the Rochester- Finger Lakes region. Schumer explained there are 18 growers in Orleans County alone, such as Torrey Farms and Anthony Piedimonte Farms, who are counting on these legal temporary agricultural workers this year to harvest their zucchini, yellow squash, cucumbers and other crops. Additionally, Schumer said apple farms could be hit next if the glitch backlog isn’t fixed and cleared in time for this summer and fall harvest seasons.

Schumer explained that these farmers have an extremely limited and specific window for when they need to harvest crops, meaning it is imperative that they have workers on site when that time comes. Any delays caused by this glitch, even just a few days, could have a ripple effect throughout the entire summer and fall farming seasons – such as zucchini, yellow squash, and cucumbers growers this summer, and apple growers this fall. Schumer said that while the State Department has been working to fix the glitch, the fact is, every day, more H-2A visa applications come in and are causing further backlogs in the pipeline. That is why Schumer is urging the State Department to not only fix the glitch but expeditiously clear the backlog so farms can hire the workers needed to harvest their crops this season.  Schumer said once the glitch backlog is fixed the State Department cannot rest easy; all hands will be needed on deck so farms across NY State and the country can get the workers they need for the rapidly approaching summer harvest season.

Schumer said farms Torrey Farms which owns farm fields in Orleans and Genesee County are at risk. Maureen Torrey, Owner of Torrey Farms and many other farms throughout Orleans County, expressed her worries to Schumer’s office when she explained that she applied to gain access to 44 H-2A workers by July 5th, and an additional 116 workers by July 8th, and a final 74 by July 12th. Altogether, over 230 legal temporary workers are needed on her farm in July to harvest the entire zucchini, yellow squash, and cucumber crops. However, the State Department recently told her, at best, it will try and clear 77 people for July 14, and another 57 people to start July 15, and worst still the remaining 83 could not be to her farm until July 20th. Schumer said Maureen and farmers like her around the state are struggling with the issue of having too few workers, at too late a date, when the harvest season timeline is very tight already. These crops are labor intensive because they need to be hand-picked before they over-ripen and spoil on the vine.  If a grower like Torrey Farms is unable to complete their first or second picking – both of which occur in July – then it would lead to major financial loss.  At Torrey Farms, the first 12 weeks of the season alone make up 70% of the farms’ revenue. This could also delay other plantings this season, thereby delaying the harvest of future crops and creating the ripple effect of additional financial loss. For example, Maureen needs these workers to plant cabbage immediately following the zucchini, yellow squash, and cucumber crop pickings.

Schumer was joined by Maureen Torrey, Owner of Torrey Farms; several Orleans County Family Farmers from the Kuldt Brothers Farm, Lyn-ette & Sons Farms, Zingler Farms,  Frank Gasperini Executive Secretary of the National Council of Ag Employers, Representatives from the New York Farm Bureau; and local elected officials.

“When we can't get workers on time to pick our vegetables and fruit, we risk significant financial losses to our family farms as well as less supply and risking prices for shoppers,” Maureen Torrey, owner of Torrey Farms said. “We appreciate Senator Schumer's support to fix the computer glitch and overcome the delays that are now preventing farms like us from getting our legal temporary H-2A workers on the farm in time to pick our crops.”

Additionally, Schumer said the already-struggling and understaffed farms across Upstate NY could have a difficult time meeting the demands of supermarkets if fewer crops are picked this season due to the backlog. This could also result in a potential price increase for consumers purchasing vegetables and other crops and, therefore, potentially less profit for farms throughout NY State. Schumer said a similar glitch occurred in July 2014. During that period, the State Department was processing visas at 50% capacity, which still had a negative effect on farms and crop prices. Schumer warned that a prolonged malfunction to the biometric system could result in a jump in price for zucchini, yellow squash, and cucumbers or other crops with the potential for prices of apples or other crops picked later in season to jump as well.

U.S. growers are required to first advertise and fill these jobs with American workers.   Only after the jobs have been posted and open for a period of time for domestic job seekers can the grower then get H-2A workers for positions that remain unfilled. Until a foreign worker’s identity is verified using the biometric system, the worker is not allowed to enter the U.S. and must remain in their home country. The June 9 technical glitch has left thousands of workers stranded, including more than 1,000 workers on the Mexican side of the border who expected to have their visas processed by this point. The State Department is posting regular updates to http://www.travel.state.gov.‎    

A copy of Schumer’s letter to Secretary Kerry appears below:

Dear Secretary Kerry:

I write to express my serious concern over the latest technical problem occurring throughout the Department of State’s visa system and the resulting visa backlogs.  The impact this could have on New York farmers is deeply troubling. 

It is my understanding that the State Department is addressing a failure in its hardware system that performs national security checks which prevented a central State Department database from receiving the biometric information necessary to complete background checks on visa applicants.  I also understand that the problem was discovered on approximately June 9, meaning that for weeks, visa applications were halted.

I certainly support every effort to protect our national security and maintain the integrity of our immigration system, but in order to serve both our national security and economic interests, these systems must work smoothly.

For years, farmers in New York have struggled to secure the workers they need to pick their harvests, sometimes being forced to leave crops rotting in their fields.  This so-called “glitch” only exacerbated the problem.  Whether the crops are cucumbers, squash, and sweet cherries now, or apples later in the summer, the next few weeks are a critical time for workers to arrive, settle in, and get to work.  Many of our specialty crops are labor intensive and only provide a narrow window of a week or two for the harvest before it is too late.  The threat of not being able to hire the necessary workers is therefore a make or break situation for many New York farmers.

My constituents have informed me that the resulting backlog of visa applications could be devastating.  Therefore, I urge you to expedite H-2A visa applications and add additional shifts in consulate offices and additional interview times for applicants until the backlog is cleared.  I also urge you to explore mitigating measures in the event of a future crash. 

The H-2A program is the principal legal means for farmers to secure immigrant workers, and it is vital to New York’s economy.  This is only the most recent technical problem your systems have experienced, but I sincerely hope it is the last.

Thank you for your time and attention.  Please keep me apprised of your efforts related to this matter.

Sincerely,

Charles E. Schumer

United States Senator

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