By KEVIN LIMITI • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
Representative Antonio Delgado traveled to Fly Creek last week to meet with Fly Creek Cider Mill owner Bill Michaels, touring the facility and discussing the challenges confronting small businesses in Otsego County.
While the pair discussed topics ranging from President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure package and supply chain concerns, Rep. Delgado and Mr. Michaels spoke at length about hiring concerns and how the federal government’sH-2B visa program helps keep the Cider Mill humming.
It’s a complicated process: H-2B allows domestic employers to hire a certain number of non-immigrant workers on a seasonal basis, contracted for eight to nine months, and after the United States Department of Labor issues a certificate of need. Work has to be open first to any and all United States citizens and, if a citizen accepts the seasonal contract, the number of available H-2B positions decreases accordingly. Among the list of requirements: Domestic employers must pay the prevailing wage for the open position, as well as provide housing and transportation for all workers.
“We have never had any United States citizens apply for these positions,” Mr. Michaels said.
The Cider Mill first hired workers from Jamaica in 2018, a process which took Mr. Michaels to the country in order to interview them. Mr. Michaels used Florida East Coast Travel Service in order to find workers, and met them at the Ministry of Labor in Kingston, Jamaica. The workers were housed in homes adjacent to the mill. Transportation costs, COVID tests, and charges for obtaining visa were all reimbursed by the Fly Creek Cider Mill.
“We’ve been running on extremely short staff,” Mr. Michaels said. “This is the worst year I’ve ever seen it.”
Mr. Michaels said hiring H-2B employees can be expensive with legal fees, application fees, filing fees, and housing for employees.
“The program is for people who can commit to an eight or nine month contract,” he said.
Mr. Michaels said because of hiring issues, they had to stop their e-commerce site and phone orders.
“The demand is there but we can’t fill our orders without staff,” he said.
The H-2B visa program was set up in the early 1990s. Most H2-B workers are landscapers.
There is a 33,000 visa cap after which the Department of Homeland Security may release another 67,000 visas. However, Mr. Michaels said it is difficult for them to release more visas due to pressure from unions. He said in the past, they’ve released 33,000 additional visas but only past their time of need in April.
“The challenge is that the need has increased while the cap has remained the same since the 1990s. Previous administrations had exempted returning workers from the cap and that all changed during the Trump administration and the Biden Administration continues the same policy,” Mr. Michaels said.
“There is currently legislation put forward to have returning workers exempt from the cap and legislation to fix the program all together and I have asked Congressman Delgado to support and co-sponsor the bills.”
Throughout the tour of the facility, Mr. Michaels spoke about the hiring process being difficult as well as other problems they were facing. Representative Delgado asked pointed questions about distribution and how things worked at the Cider Mill.
Mr. Michaels spoke of some of the difficulty with staffing some of the backroom jobs.
“We just haven’t had anybody apply,” he said, explaining that online sales encompassed less than 10% of their revenue. “So we’re concentrating on our brick and mortar.”
Mr. Michaels told Representative Delgado that without the H-2B program, “I can’t staff these positions.”
“They’re just like family. They’ve been here four years,” he said of the H-2B employees.
“Without those individuals, you could not find people to work?” Representative Delgado asked, to which
Mr. Michaels responded affirmatively.
Throughout the tour, Mr. Michaels showed him the renovating they were doing, including plans to move the tasting bar upstairs.
“My location is my benefit because I have no competition,” he said. “But it’s also hard because I don’t have the labor.”
Mr. Michaels said he hasn’t been able to hire a handyman for three years.
At the end of the tour, Representative Delgado took with him some apple cider products.
“I feel the passion, I appreciate the work, and want to help in every way I can,” he said just before leaving.
The Freeman’s Journal spoke with Representative Delgado outside of the Cider Mill. He said he visited Fly Creek to talk with Mr. Michaels to hear more about the issues facing local businesses.
“It’s always good to connect with our small businesses,” he said.
Congressman Delgado also spoke with The Freeman’s Journal about President Biden’s infrastructure package, signed into law on November 15.
“It’s a big, big deal,” he said. “There’s a lot of money for broadband, roads and bridges. In Otsego County, there are a lot of roads in disrepair. There has to be a return on our investment.”