Farmers and ranchers across California and on the Central Coast employed a record number of temporary agricultural workers last year, according to a review of H-2A worker certification data published by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Over a one-year period ending Sept. 30, 2018, California's agricultural sector was approved for 18,908 temporary guest worker jobs, a 24.1-percent increase over the same period ending September 2017. Santa Barbara County saw a slight decline in the number of foreign laborers used last year by growers, dropping 0.4 percent from 2,805 to 2,793 field workers. The number of temporary workers tending to San Luis Obispo County's strawberry fields and sheep herds more than doubled last year, jumping 169 percent from 408 to 1,098.

"Our members have consistently, since 2012, reported a labor shortage between 15 and 25 percent," said Claire Wineman, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, adding that most are turning to the program "as a last resort."

Introduced in 1986, the H-2A program allows U.S. employers to hire foreign workers for temporary or seasonal agricultural jobs unfilled due to a domestic labor shortage. Though the number of H-2A visas remains uncapped, employers are required to demonstrate that there is an insufficient number of able and qualified workers willing to do the work, and that employing foreign workers will not negatively affect wages and working conditions of the domestic labor force.

Six sheep herders hired by a Paso Robles farm were the only record of San Luis Obispo County agricultural jobs being filled by foreign guest workers in 2012. Santa Barbara County did not welcome its first H-2A workers until 2013, when 158 jobs picking lettuce and other crops in Santa Maria and Los Alamos were made available. 

The state now ranks fifth in the nation for hiring H-2A workers — trailing behind Georgia, Florida, Washington and North Carolina — and accounts for 7.8 percent of all guest worker jobs authorized by the federal government. As of last year, Department of Labor data shows 52.5 percent of guest workers on the Central Coast, the majority, work between 35 and 48 hours per week as strawberry pickers.

Four of the country's 10 largest employers of H-2A workers, which include Santa Maria-based Rancho Nuevo Harvesting Company, are based in California, according to the Department of Labor. Rancho Nuevo, an H-2A labor contractor for growers with sites on the Central Coast and in the Central Valley, Inland Empire and Yuma, Arizona, is the ninth-largest employer of foreign workers in the country, recruiting 2,058 in 2018, or roughly 0.8 percent.

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Mathew Burciaga is a Santa Maria Times reporter who covers education, agriculture and public safety. Prior to joining the Times, Mathew ran a 114-year-old community newspaper in Wyoming. He owns more than 40 pairs of crazy socks from across the globe.

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