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Vineyards worry about guest worker shortage

U.S. vineyards need foreign workers

Late summer marks the start of a critical time period for the 40 percent of Americans who enjoy wine: harvest season. Between August and October, about 4 million tons of grapes nationwide are processed on their way to the bottle. 

In the U.S., that job is mostly done by foreign workers. Vineyards, orchards and farms have long relied on guest workers to plant and harvest food. Federal law allows for these workers, who come through the H-2A visa program, to stay up to 10 months in a year.

Barboursville Vineyards, which has a reputation for producing some of Virginia's top wines, has relied on foreign workers for 20 years, hiring up to 16 every season, CBS affiliate WCAV reports. 

"It would be hard to function if the program was not existing," Luca Paschina, the farm's general manager, told the station.

Wine has steadily grown in popularity among Americans, with nearly 40 percent saying they drink it, and 30 percent saying they prefer it to other alcoholic beverages, according to Gallup. The U.S. is the world's largest wine consumer, drinking 950 million gallons of the stuff in 2016. Americans may own vineyards, but very few work on them.

Virginia's Crown Orchard, Dickie Bros. Orchard, Early Mountain Vineyards, Horton Vineyards and Trump Winery also rely heavily on the H2-A program, WCAV reports, with demand for the workers only growing in recent years. The number of guest workers in Virginia from 2,600 in 2013 to over 3,400 in 2016.

Nationwide, nearly 200,000 workers received H-2A visas last year, twice the number in 2006, according to the Yakima Herald.

The program has stringent requirements meant to protect U.S. workers: Employers must pay more than minimum wage (the amount varies by state), provide housing for the workers and advertise the jobs widely before bringing in temporary workers. 

Still, many employers say Americans don't want the kind of jobs that guest workers typically fill. That's because, along with being seasonal, the work tends to be physically taxing. In a strong economy, people generally prefer jobs that offer year-round work (H-2A visas last for only 10 months) that offer benefits.

"Agricultural jobs will be the last jobs that anybody takes because there's so many alternatives for Americans to take," said Kerry Scott, who works for masLabor, a placement agency for foreign workers. 

In Washington state, farmers have complained for years of a work shortage. It's one of the biggest agricultural states in the country, ranking just behind Georgia and Florida in the number of temporary guest worker visas issued annually. Some farmers are now turning to mechanization to save on labor, reports the Bend Bulletin, while others are effectively triaging their crops, picking the higher-priced fruit first before turning back to the others.

Retiring Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R.-Virginia, proposed expanding the guest worker program and making it cheaper for businesses. But that effort failed to pass the House last month. Meanwhile, farm worker advocates point out that if farm jobs are going unfilled because the pay is too low, employers should increase the pay.