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January 11, 2013

PART THREE OF THREE: Seasonal workers vital to Ernst Seeds

MEADVILLE — Across the country, Mexican migrant workers are an important part of the workforce. While Mexicans work at many different jobs and in a host of industries, the majority of Mexican foreign nationals in the United States work as manual laborers in the agriculture, construction, restaurant and hospitality industries.

Today, about 30 percent of foreign born residents in the U.S. are from Mexico (12 million of a total of 40 million). In the late 19th century, western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio became home to thousands of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, making our region an immigration destination. Today, however, the region receives far fewer immigrants than much of the rest of the country.

The eight Mexican men who work at Ernst Conservation Seeds in Union Township are legal migrants who have procured authorization to live and work temporarily in the U.S. through the U.S government’s H2A Visa Program. The H2A Program seeks to fill temporary agricultural jobs with foreign nationals when qualified U.S. workers are not available. Each year, Ernst Conservation Seeds files petitions for the number of seasonal workers it is seeking. Greg Kedzierski, who administers the H2A Program at Ernst and supervises the workers, says that it has been very difficult to find natives willing to do agricultural work of this type.

“Who wants to do backbreaking manual labor for eight dollars an hour?” Kedzierski asks, somewhat rhetorically. “Folks around here will farm if they or their families own a farm. If not, it is really hard to find individuals who will work out in the field, under inclement weather conditions, for relatively low wages, and for months at a time. It is hard work.” Kedzierski notes that the native workers who apply for work at Ernst typically do not apply for the field jobs done by the Mexicans. “The work they (the Mexican workers) do is menial and manual,” Kedzierski remarked. “No one wants to do it.”

Ernst, like all employers filing for H2A Visas on behalf of foreign nationals, must meet specific conditions. In a nutshell, employers must demonstrate that these jobs are temporary; that there are an insufficient number of U.S. workers who are willing, able and qualified to do the needed work (U.S. employers are legally obliged to hire an equal number of qualified natives who apply for the same job as H2A Visa workers); and that employment of H2A workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers. After an employer submits the necessary forms, prospective workers need to apply for a Visa and/or admission. Fifty-eight countries are currently eligible to participate in the H2A program, including Mexico. Wages in the H2A Visa Program start at around $8 an hour and are set each year by the federal government. Employers cannot pay workers in the program less than $8 an hour, but can pay them more. At Ernst, pay increases with experience, and Mexican workers receive wage increases based on performance and experience on schedule with other Ernst employees. Participating employers must pay for workers’ housing and undergo inspections of that housing a couple of times a year.

All eight of the Mexican workers recently at Ernst lived together in housing provided by the company. Kedzierski notes that Ernst is only authorized to apply for eight Mexican workers. The U.S. government stipulates that no more than eight workers may be housed in a single dwelling. During high season, however, these men don’t spend much time in the house, as they try to maximize the number of hours they work at Ernst. The federal government does not stipulate a maximum number of hours that can be worked under the program, and the Mexican workers typically work six days a week.

“We work as many hours as we can, in order to save up our money — most of us are building houses in our home towns and every little bit helps,” says Manuel García, who has been working at Ernst for 10 seasons. Others, like José Piñeda, dream of starting their own businesses in Mexico, fueled, in part, by the money they make here in Meadville. All of the workers regularly send money home to their families, mostly through Western Union moneygrams, during the working season.

The H2A Visa Program stipulates that after three years migrants must depart and remain outside the U.S. for three months before seeking readmission. This is not a problem for Meadville’s Mexican workers. Typically, the eight workers who come each year to Meadville are in town for about 10 months, arriving in February for planting and leaving in early December when the season ends. Many of them can rightfully call Meadville home —  they have returned to live and work here for several years running. Six of the eight workers this year have worked at Ernst for 10 years; one has been here for five years, and one of the younger workers is finishing his first season at Ernst. All of the men are from central Mexico — the states of Querétero and Puebla.

Each March they typically board buses from their home states, which take them to Monterey, an industrial city in the northern state of Nuevo León. They stay in Monterey for three days or so, the time it takes for the U.S. consulate there to process their H2A visas. They then fly from Monterey to Pittsburgh, where Kedzierski picks them up and brings them back to Meadville for yet another season of work. Kedzierski likes to go to Pittsburgh personally to pick up and drop off the workers each year. “They work so long and so hard for us,” Kedzierski says, “It is important for me to let them know that we know and appreciate how hard they work.”

How did Ernst’s Mexican workers find out about this job opportunity? You might assume that these men had experience working in agriculture before coming to Meadville. Yet, most of the workers have not. Ten years ago, Rogelio Jurado from Querétero was working construction in New York City when he saw a job announcement in a state employment agency bulletin about the job at Ernst. Guadalupe Morales said that he worked at a bus assembly plant in Puebla state before coming to Meadville. Other workers came to Ernst through family connections. Próspero and José Piñeda are brothers as are Sergio and Rogelio Jurado. Keny, who is finishing his first year at Ernst, is Rogelio’s son. These network connections are typical among immigrants in the U.S., particularly among manual laborers, who rely on family and hometown connections to find jobs and, often, for housing. Migration is an expensive prospect for most migrants, particularly those manual laborers who are not under the H2A Visa Program and who need to rely on family and friends for shelter, job connections and emotional support during those first difficult months after arrival.

Given the amount of time spent working, there is often not a lot of extra time to establish connections to the Meadville community. Several years ago, Allegheny College students started a tutoring program in which students spoke Spanish with the Ernst workers in exchange for some English language instruction and conversation. This program was operative for three or four years before fading out when several of the founding members graduated and left town. Several of the men recalled the program with some fondness and said that they would be interested in possibly doing something like this again. In general, it has been hard for the men to connect with the Meadville community given that they aren’t members of church communities or of other organizations that provide automatic community ties.

There is one way that this small group of Mexicans has introduced a bit of their culture to Meadville. Every couple of years in October, Ernst holds an apple-butter get-together for employees. Several years ago the guys from Puebla decided to add a bit of Mexican tradition to the festivities by butchering and roasting a pig for everyone. José Jurado says that in his hometown in Puebla, the town butchers a pig during the feast of St. Christopher in October. “This is our custom, what we do in our hometown, and we wanted to bring this custom to Meadville to share,” says José proudly. The Meadville pig roast has become somewhat of a tradition at Ernst — and a way for the Mexican workers to share some of their culture and traditions with the wider community.

For many of us, being away from our families and friends for 10 months out of the year is unthinkable. Yet, for the roughly 10 percent of Mexico’s population who have immigrated to the U.S., the reality of these long absences are much more common, despite the hardship and loneliness. Ernst’s Mexican workers, uniformly, are grateful to be here in Meadville working. Keny, who is finishing his first year at Ernst, says that he will be back in February. “It’s hard work,” Keny said, “but they treat us well.” The money these eight men make here helps them realize some of their individual goals, and above all, allows them to help their families.

Kedzierski can’t say enough about the strong work ethic of the Mexican workers at Ernst: “Without those guys, Ernst Seeds would find it much harder to continue to do what we do.”

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