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The Virginia wine country is growing. The local labor pool is not.

As Donald Trump began his ascent to the highest office in the land in the mid-2010s and his rhetoric on immigration was broadcast across the country, the businesses bearing his name naturally came under greater scrutiny for hiring undocumented laborers.

Several of those enterprises — the hotels, the golf courses, the casinos — began thorough reviews of their staffs, removing employees who were found to be undocumented.

One of those was Trump Winery, just south of Charlottesville.

Between 2013, the year Trump’s speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference made clear his political ambitions, and 2019, the year he announced his doomed reelection campaign, Trump Winery conducted extensive reviews of its payrolls, removed undocumented workers from its ranks and began applying for temporary worker visas, known as H-2As.

Trump Winery officials reached out to other large operations in the Virginia wine country, also known as the Monticello viticultural area, asking for best standards and practices.

“I gave them advice about H-2A, because they called me about it,” Fernando Franco, viticulturist at Barboursville Vineyards on the Orange-Albemarle county line, told The Daily Progress. Barboursville, he said, has been using the H-2A program for more than two decades.

Today, Trump Winery, owned by the former president’s son Eric, says the H-2A program is an integral part of its hiring process for foreign laborers.

“Pretty much anybody that’s a decent-sized vineyard, 50 acres or so, will be using the H-2A program,” Jonathan Wheeler, head winemaker at Trump, told The Daily Progress. “Obviously, the Trump name and the labor thing, people have a lot of opinions about it. But if you buy anything at the grocery store — all the strawberries, lettuce, cabbage, all that stuff — they’re all using the same programs. Just the owners of those companies are a little less outspoken.”

But as Wheeler noted, it is the largest vineyards and wineries that can afford to review staff documentation and apply for H-2As. Just because they have purged their fields of undocumented workers doesn’t mean those workers have disappeared.

The Virginia wine industry has grown “exponentially,” Stephen Barnard, former winemaker at Keswick Vineyards and sitting president of the Monticello Wine Trail, told The Daily Progress. It is now a nearly $2 billion industry pumping out roughly 2 million gallons a wine every year, most of that concentrated in the Monticello region. It has grown to be the 10th-largest wine producer in the U.S. and the second largest on the East Coast. What hasn’t grown is the local labor pool. Virginians simply aren’t willing to spend the long hours in the long rows of grapevines during the longest days of the year.

Mechanization is an option, but not a cheap one when a single autonomous harvester costs roughly half a million dollars.

“The crux of it all is that in Virginia we’re still very much doing everything by hand,” George Hodson, CEO at Veritas Vineyards and Winery in Afton and the president of the Virginia Wineries Association, told The Daily Progress. “At the end of the day, we’re wholly dependent on people going through and doing it by actually walking through the vine.”

Many smaller vineyards are routinely turning to traveling crews of laborers whose documentation is questionable or unquestioned, according to Hodson and others in the Virginia wine industry, many of whom asked to remain anonymous.

“If there’s a blind eye to turn, that’s where we can do it, because we’re hiring a company and not individuals,” said Hodson, who was clear that “we” did not refer to Veritas but rather to the wine industry itself. “There’s a bunch of crews led by a foreman of that crew, and what happens at that second level between the foreman and his employees — we just don’t generally ask that question.”

Complicated and costly

The H-2A program allows agricultural employers to bring in nonimmigrant foreign workers to the U.S. in order to perform labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature if employers anticipate a shortage of domestic workers.

There are 13 vineyards in Central Virginia using the program employing 117 H-2A workers, including Trump and Barboursville, the two largest vineyards by acreage. That’s 13 of the 40 Monticello-area wineries.

“Not having the labor, the decision would be not to plant. It’s that drastic,” Kerry Woolard, general manager at Trump, told The Daily Progress. “There’s nothing negative that can be said about the H-2A visa program. It is a legal program, vital to American agriculture.”

Trump and Barboursville, as well as Grace Estate Winery in Crozet, all use consulting firm másLabor to help complete the multistep H-2A application, which always starts with a call for U.S. applicants, according to Megan Wright, senior director of industry relations at the firm which has clients in all 50 U.S. states.

“I don’t think any employer gets overly excited about entering a highly regulated federal program,” Wright told The Daily Progress. “It doesn’t necessarily matter what geography, what industry, folks are having a hard time hiring.”

“People often make the false assumption that you’re deliberately hiring out cheaper labor from another country,” Robbie Corpora, winegrower at Grace, told The Daily Progress. “You want to know how many American applicants I got?”

Wheeler asked the same question.

“We put out a call for domestic applicants,” he said. “We do it every year, and guess how many applicants we get?”

The answer is zero. And it’s the same for thousands of farms across the country.

There were 298,000 visas issued for the 371,000 H-2A jobs in the U.S. in 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the spring of 2020, the National Council of Agricultural Employers conducted a review of state workforce agencies, including “all of the large agricultural states,” said Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the council. For nearly 100,000 jobs across the country, there were a total of 337 domestic applicants.

There are plenty of reasons for the dearth of domestic applicants, according to Marsh: first, the domestic agricultural workforce is “aging out,” and second, agricultural work is hard work.

“It doesn’t take very long to put someone in a very long row before they realize, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ Corpora said. “And it’s only been one day.”

Before he began using the H-2A program, Wheeler said Trump couldn’t maintain a staff. After working for a few weeks in the heat and humidity of the Virginia summer, the “hodgepodge” of locals would stop showing up to work.

“It was constant turnover and constant training,” he said.

The need for experienced workers is strong: Make a wrong cut in the vineyard, and the fruit could be affected for years to come. That’s not an easy thing to teach, Wheeler said, but it’s something he doesn’t have to worry about when most of his H-2A workers return every year.

Hiring is also tricky when a job lasts only six to eight months. In the winters, vineyards need very few hands to prune their vines.

“You don’t find any Americans who say, ‘Yeah, I want to come work for you and give you 90% of my life for six months,’” Corpora said. “These guys [H-2A workers] are willing to do that … if they’re not working, they’re bored.”

Some vineyards do hire crews full time. Veritas is one. The vineyard’s eight to 10 employees are paid year round to tend to its 90 acres under vine, according to Hodson.

But a smaller vineyard might not be able to afford year-round employees or even the H-2A program, which comes with its own set of costs.

H-2A workers are paid a salary of $14.16 an hour, well above Virginia’s minimum wage. Employers must also pay for workers’ visa fees, transportation to and from their home country and food and lodging throughout the working season. Getting workers to the vineyards alone can cost about $4,000 per person, said Franco at Barboursville.

“If you’re as big as Trump or Barboursville, it almost necessitates having a sizable workforce, so the expenditure there would be easily justifiable,” said Barnard. “If you’re a 10- to 15-acre vineyard, bringing in an H-2A program might not make sense.”

Between complex zoning laws and pushback from neighbors, housing is often the biggest barrier for másLabor clients, Wright said. Trump, Barboursville and Grace all house their workers on site, using existing infrastructure that a smaller vineyard might not have.

The H-2A workers often come from the same towns and even the same family, winegrowers said.

Nicolas Zavala, who is from Zacatecas, Mexico, heard about H-2A through a friend who worked at Barboursville, he told The Daily Progress through a translator. Zavala is on his 18th year at Grace, and now works alongside five others, all family, including his son.

“They were almost already a family when they got here,” Corpora, his boss, said. “It was just a matter of them being able to include us in their family.”

The knotted labor landscape

If employers are using the H-2A program, they’re likely not hiring undocumented workers — at least to their knowledge, Wright with másLabor said.

The largest users of the H-2A program in the country are states that require employers to verify their workers’ legal status. Florida is the largest, and with its recent, controversial implementation of the E-Verify program, it likely won’t give up that title for some time, said the agricultural employers council’s Marsh.

In Virginia, employers are not required to verify their workers’ employment status. They’re also not allowed to challenge documents so long as they look real, Wright said.

“Employers obviously want to ensure they’re protecting their workforce, and also protecting themselves operationally,” she said. “But if you’re presented with a document, you can’t question it.”

“If the workers submit credentials that look viable and seem viable, we have to accept them,” Hodson at Veritas said. “Unequivocally, we are getting documents that are perfect.”

Perfect, but not necessarily real. A winegrower who chose to remain anonymous said he got a call just a few years ago from a woman in California claiming she could not receive health benefits because her Social Security card was being used by someone else: a worker at his Virginia vineyard. “They moved on when it came up.”

Barboursville began using E-Verify for all its employees about 15 years ago, according to Franco.

“When you are on the H-2A program, you put yourself under the microscope with the Department of Labor,” Franco said.

Winemakers were plainspoken with The Daily Progress: The industry’s biggest source of undocumented labor is “shared crews” — teams of five to 15 workers contracted by multiple vineyards at a time, usually to help with the harvest in the fall.

The crews are made up of “well-known, well-respected, incredible workers,” said Barnard with the Monticello Wine Trail. And they’re in high demand.

“It’s not like it just rains here and not at Stinson,” Corpora at Grace said. “We all want to pick the same variety at the same time.”

Without an on-site labor crew, there’s no promise that hands will show up to get the fruit off the vine; it’s a problem Keswick ran into before eventually purchasing a mechanical harvester.

“There were times when folks arrived, times they didn’t,” Barnard said. “There wasn’t this guarantee that we were going to get the fruit off when we needed to.”

It’s a question of control.

“If there’s a hurricane coming and you need to get your fruit in, you don’t have an option,” Hodson at Veritas said. “You can’t just get to that on Monday. It’s happening, it’s happening, you could lose your entire crop.”

At Barboursville’s neighbor Burnley Vineyards, owner Lee Reeder said he brings in a crew to help him harvest his 26 acres under vine. He’s been using the same crew of five workers for nearly 40 years, who “graciously” added him to their rotation in 1987.

“For harvest they try to squeeze me in,” Reeder said. He noted most of his workers were granted amnesty in the 1980s, and he checks documents every year.

But with a hurricane coming, fruit to get off the vine and three other vineyards ahead in line, smaller vineyards don’t always ask for paperwork.

“They’re a whole lot less likely to ask for those documents,” Hodson said. “They’re going to be a whole lot more willing to pay in cash. Because it’s completely, absolutely necessary.”

When asked when and if Trump has had to let go of any undocumented workers and if the operation is using E-Verify, winery employees who had previously led The Daily Progress on a tour of the facilities and answered questions openly stopped responding.

Multiple requests for comment went unanswered.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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