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Charlottesville's Trump Winery seeks more foreign workers, but many local vineyards also depend on them

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[CHALOTTESVILLE] As President Donald Trump continues to advocate “buy American and hire American,” his son’s Albemarle County winery has again applied to hire foreign workers.

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[CHALOTTESVILLE] As President Donald Trump continues to advocate “buy American and hire American,” his son’s Albemarle County winery has again applied to hire foreign workers.

Trump Vineyard Estates, better known as Trump Winery, has asked to bring in 29 workers this season through the federal H-2 visa program. The winery initially applied for six vineyard farm workers in December and applied for an additional 23 workers in February.

It’s not the only local vineyard to apply to hire foreign workers. Horton Vineyards, Early Mountain Vineyards and Barboursville Winery also have applied for workers this year. Glass House Winery and Grace Estates Winery didn’t apply for workers for this season, but they have utilized the program in the past.

Trump Winery did not respond to a request for comment.

“It’s difficult to find people,” said Libby Whitley, an attorney who has worked with employers on labor services since 1995. “People these days say there are no workers that will perform seasonal work like agriculture jobs, landscaping, entry level, low skill ... I think that’s an overstatement. I don’t think there are no people do to it, there’s just a deficiency of people to do it.”

Whitely’s firm, based in Lovingston, has worked with all the local vineyards, as well as orchards, nurseries and other farms, that are utilizing the H-2A program.

The H-2A program is for agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring foreign workers to the United States to perform agricultural labor or other temporary or seasonal services.

The employer must file an application with the Department of Labor stating that there are not sufficient workers in the U.S. who are able, willing, qualified and available to do the work. They must have initially attempted to find American citizens to fill these jobs.

The employers also have to engage in “positive recruitment efforts,” which include placing a newspaper advertisement on two separate days — one of which must be a Sunday — in a paper serving the area where the workers will be used and in other multistate papers.

“This is a program for employers who typically hire larger numbers of temporary seasonal labor and whose alternative choice would be hiring from the undocumented population,” Whitely said.

There are limitations to the programs, she said, when it comes to cost, general regulations and the lack of flexibility.

“You cannot permit them to do any work that isn’t described in the job order,” Whitely said.

Both job orders for Trump Vineyard Estates say the primary tasks include planting and cultivating vines, adding grow tubes and pruning grape vines. It says workers also may perform general tasks relative to vineyard and winery operations when work in the vineyard is not available.

“There’s a great deal of flexibility when you have a U.S. worker and … these temporary workers can only come in the exact same time period every year, there’s no upward progression potential,” Whitely said.

H-2A workers and U.S. workers in corresponding employment must be paid a certain rate — which this year in Virginia is $10.72 an hour for vineyard farm workers — and must be provided housing and transportation to the job site if their employment requires them to be away from their residence overnight.

Whitely said that with all the media coverage Trump Winery has received for using the H-2A program, she assumed her company would be flooded with people applying for the jobs.

“Guess how many applicants we had? ... 13,” she said. “And they were all from places like the Philippines, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria. We did not have one American worker apply on [the first job order].”

She said there has been more advertising for the Trump jobs than they’ve had for any H-2A application in decades. They also have received emails from people who are outraged, and others who are curious or puzzled about the program, she said.

“I qualify every one of those responses and I say, ‘Are you interested in the job? If you are, please get in touch with us immediately,’” Whitely said.

Under the program, employers are required to hire any qualified American worker who indicates an interest, regardless of how they found out about the job.

“But recognizing the majority don’t stay, [employers] have a significant interest in making sure that they can meet the labor needs by using the H-2A program and getting the labor certification so that if the domestic workers don’t show, that they then have the ability to recoup the workers that they need,” Whitely said.

Early Mountain Vineyards applied for 12 workers for this season through the H-2A program.

In an emailed statement, General Manager David Kostelnik said Early Mountain employs mostly Virginian workers and many of its H-2A workers have been with the vineyard for more than one season.

“We are proud that 85 percent of our team members are from Virginia,” Kostelnik said in the email. “The other 15 percent are seasonal workers, most of whom have been with us for multiple growing seasons, who come through the H-2A visa program. We value the experience our entire team brings, and are grateful for their dedication to excellence.”

Kostelnik said that while they cannot comment on the employment practices of others, they believe their practices are consistent with other significant vineyards in the state.

Glass House Winery owner Jeff Sanders used the H-2A visa program to hire one worker in 2015 and 2016.

“It’s hard to find good, local work, very hard for this, and that was true three years ago when the economy wasn’t as good,” Sanders said. “Now, it’s even harder. These aren’t high-paying jobs.”

Because the vineyard is only 12 acres, Sanders said, he typically only has one full-time worker, one H-2A worker and himself working in the vineyard, which works out to about two full-time-equivalents year-round. This year, he lost his full-time worker, so he went a different route.

“This year, I hired Vineyard Services of Central Virginia to do a considerable amount of layout, contractual vineyard work over the course of the year, and that replaces my employee and my H-2A worker,” Sanders said. “I’m still helping, I’m still out supervising and doing some work, but I basically gave them 80 or 85 percent of the vineyard and I’m keeping 15 percent.”

This article originally ran on richmond.com.

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