Fruits and vegetables are rotting in the fields in Arizona and California because the workers that farmers hired months ago to pick them are stranded in a monumental back-up at the border caused by a computer glitch.
"Producers in Arizona and California have been losing $1 million a day since June 10," said Frank Gasperini with the National Council of Agricultural Employers. "Ripe fruit and vegetables can't wait for computer problems to be solved. If they aren't picked they rot."
The shutdown began June 9 when the interface between the computer system for the Department of Homeland Security, which provides security clearances for visas, and the computer system for the Department of State, which prints visas, went down.
For more than two weeks it stayed down, delaying all visas for anyone wanting to enter the U.S., including the some 105,000 to 110,000 H-2A workers who enter the country annually to harvest crops. As the backlog built up, thousands of workers were sent back home.
Backlog a nightmare
"The system is back up and running, but it will take weeks that farmers don't have to clear out the backlog," Gasperini said. "Those workers that were sent home have to come back and get in line again. It is our understanding that they are being given priority for interviews to get in, along with humanitarian and medical applicants, but the delay is very costly, not just the producers, but to the economy of the country and the reputation of U.S. commerce as a whole."
Producers whose crops were ready in mid to late June have already lost a lot of the crop and even if workers make it to the fields to clean up what's left, there is no reimbursement for the losses. Crop insurance doesn’t cover losses due to workers' failure to arrive.
There is also no program that covers the up-front losses of producers who have seen the cost of hiring H-2A workers skyrocket with the delays. He said he heard mention of producers getting together to file a class action suit, but that would be expensive and likely take years to resolve.
Punished for doing it legally
"These are the employers trying to do everything the right way and hire legal, immigrant labor," Gasperini said. "It's an expensive program to start with. The employer has to pay all the travel expenses of the worker, including hotel and meal costs during the delay. They book air travel weeks ago at favorable rates based on the expected dates of travel. Now they have had to change all those flights. I know of one grower in California who has seen a $600,000 increase in the out-of-pocket costs. That doesn't include the losses of his crop, just his cost of getting workers to the field."
Gasperini said that he, along with several producers, are talking with U.S. Senators in the hope of getting answers from DHS and the State Department about how the glitch happened and how it can be prevented from happening again.
"It is frustrating because we had a similar problem last year when the system that handles the actual printing of Visas went down and delayed workers. That was shorter term. This time, we are talking a national security issue because DHS couldn’t process security clearances."
He said the glitch does not appear to be a result of hacking or acts of malfeasance.
"It appears to be a coincidence that the timing matched up to the news of government computers being hacked," he said. "This appears to be more a failure of infrastructure, more akin to the issue we face with roads and bridges coming apart. It stems from a lack of maintenance and upkeep."
That makes it even harder for the farmers paying the price of the failure to accept, Gasperini said.
"H-2A is a very difficult, cumbersome program to start with," he said. "With all the pressures growers already face from weather, insects and disease it is just intolerable that they have to face variables because the government can't do what it needs to do."
Minor impact on custom harvesters
The U.S. Custom Harvester crews who rely on temporary workers from foreign countries, especially South Africa, to provide labor for harvest crews have not felt significant impact from a computer glitch that ground issuance of visas to a halt for more than two weeks, beginning June 9.
"Most of our crews were already in the country at the time the computers went down," said Tracy Zoerian with U.S. Custom Harvesters. "Our harvest season begins earlier in south Texas, so we had fewer people in line to come in by mid-June."