News Guest Workers Prosper on Alabama Farms

Guest Workers Prosper on Alabama Farms

Guest Workers Prosper on Alabama Farms
September 1, 2023 |

By Marlee Jackson

A diverse pool of workers spilled out of trucks, tractors and ATVs at Hunter Trees in late July, converging in the shade for a midmorning break and cool slices of watermelon.

The group included Enrique. Though he speaks Spanish, his comments were interpreted through Hunter Trees’ on-site translator and compliance manager, Tamara Camp.

“We are looking for prosperity,” Enrique said. “We want to do the best for our family even though we are separate.”

Enrique is from Mexico and is one of 16 seasonal, temporary guest workers hired to help operations flow smoothly at the wholesale tree nursery.

Phillip and Will Hunter organized a midmorning respite for their team this summer, featuring cool watermelon, icy glass-bottled drinks and ice cream.

The spur-of-the-moment extra respite is just one way Phillip and Will Hunter have built camaraderie for their team. The Talladega County farm’s workforce is comprised of domestic labor and guest workers, like Enrique, hired through the federal H-2A program for agricultural work.

H-2A and H-2B, its sister program for non-agricultural labor, have strict requirements. That includes providing bathroom and clean water facilities every quarter mile in the field, on-farm housing, transportation, routine breaks and fair wages.

The Alabama Farmers Federation’s Blake Thaxton said employers often take creating a safe environment to the next level. For the Hunters, that includes the home they built for guest workers last year. It has a large living area, a spacious kitchen and dormitory-style bedrooms.

“In so many cases, farmers think of guest workers as family,” said Thaxton, who represents specialty crop and green industry farmers. “I’ve seen families organize birthday parties, crawfish boils and Easter dinners for guest workers. That’s not federally required. It’s just an extra way they care for their folks.”

Cookouts, porch-sitting or off-farm excursions fill workers’ weekends, too. So does rest.

Guest workers at Green Valley Farms in Shelby County are treated like family and joined in on a farm-wide crawfish boil this summer.

Before guest workers enter the U.S, their guest worker contracts stipulate the specific job they will perform and number of hours they will work. Common jobs include picking vegetables, pruning trees or operating million-dollar machinery.

It’s hard work that pays off.

The Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) dictates the lowest amount guest workers can be paid. The more skilled the job, the higher the wage. Alabama’s AEWR is $13.67 an hour.

The state’s minimum wage is $7.25.

To help their Latino labor force feel more comfortable, the Hunters hired Camp in 2022, their first year with guest workers. Will speaks Spanish, but with 16 guest workers, they needed a go-between.

“We wanted to be comfortable, but we also wanted them to be comfortable,” Phillip said.

Camp manages compliance with a bevy of federal programs that watch out for guest workers’ safety. She texts and talks with the crew often, and conversations range from reminders to drink water to organized safety trainings. 

Guest workers from Penton Farms gathered to celebrate Austin Penton’s birthday this summer. The guest workers and farm family work hand-in-hand picking Chilton County produce each year.

It’s a familial level of care, Thaxton said. 

“It’s incredible to visit farms across this state and see the bond farmers have with their team,” he said. “It’s good to know these guys are taken care of.”

This is the second piece in a four-part series about Alabama’s need for guest workers. Read more in the November and March issues of Neighbors. 

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