Schumer says computer glitch could leave farms without harvest workers

Posted 29 June 2015 at 12:00 am

File photo by Tom Rivers – This photo shows apples in an orchard last September at the corner of East State Street and Butts Road in Albion. A computer glitch has created a backlog stalled applications for temporary foreign workers to work at fruit and vegetable farms.

Press Release
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer

HULBERTON – 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.

That glitch has created a backlog of stalled applications and prevented farms across the state from accessing legal temporary workers to harvest their crops.

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 who are counting on these workers this year.

Those farms haven’t been able to hire the legal temporary farm workers needed to harvest their zucchini, yellow squash, and cucumbers. 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 and fall 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 New York 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.

“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,” Schumer said. “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.”

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 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.

“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,” Schumer said. “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.”

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 182 farms in New York 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.

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.

“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,” said Maureen Torrey, co-owner of Torrey Farms, which is based in Elba. “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.”