Trump Winery has applied for temporary visas for another 23 laborers, which it says it cannot find domestically. Earlier this year, it imported six workers to prune grapevines. Critics suggest that if the vineyard, owned by President Donald Trump progeny Eric Trump, paid a living wage, it might be able to hire American workers.
Approximately 75 percent of the winery’s 110 employees are Americans, according to general manager Kerry Woolard. And like 2,000 other farms across the country that use H-2A visas for seasonal agricultural workers, the winery uses the visa program when it cannot find domestic laborers, she says.
“We engage in extensive efforts to recruit enthusiastic, qualified and committed employees for all positions, including labor positions at the vineyard, and are committed to employing U.S. workers whenever possible,” writes Woolard in an e-mail.
She says the winery aggressively recruits workers online through indeed.com, Charlottesville area Craigslist and the U.S. Department of Labor’s iCert system, as well as through print ads in multiple states and word of mouth.
Trump Winery is not the only area vineyard to use the H-2A visa program. Horton, Early Mountain and Barboursville vineyards also find help that way.
And as C-VILLE reported in January, temporary workers aren’t cheap. The employers must provide round-trip transportation, housing, vehicles and weekly trips to Walmart, as well as pay Mas Labor in Lovingston, the largest H-2A employment agency in the country, according to its owner, Libby Whitley.
The laborers Trump Winery brought in to prune over the winter were paid $10.72 an hour, but the newest batch will get a bump to $11.27, according to the U.S. Department of Labor website.
Many other local wineries, such as Blenheim, Cardinal Point and King Family, do not use the visa program, and most of them did not respond to inquiries about how much they paid.
Bill Pelton, owner of Clay Hill Farm, says he pays his crew $14 an hour and is considering upping them to $15 because that’s considered a living wage. “I do feel strongly they should be paid a living wage,” he says. And he wants to retain his crew, which he describes as “reliable, competent,” and as bringing expertise from other places.
Matt Murray, who grew up on Panorama Farm, has worked for Pelton. “It is hard labor,” he says. “The nature of the work is, you have to bend over. It’s reaching, pulling, cutting with sharp clippers. I’ve cut myself.”
And then there are the bees that wake up as the sun comes up and are drawn to the grapes. “Getting stung once a day is not uncommon,” says Murray.
Labor, says Murray, is a “miniscule” cost in producing a bottle of wine. Employers should pay workers responsibly, “if nothing else to make sure there’s a crew for next year’s work,” he says.
Murray lambasts “the hypocrisy of a self-proclaimed billionaire proclaiming he can’t find people to work. If he was willing to pay $14 or $15 an hour, he wouldn’t need to import people. The visa program wouldn’t be necessary.”
Not everyone agrees that Americans would be willing to do farm labor, even at a higher wage.
According to Woolard, out of 3,500 H-2A visas issued in Virginia in 2016, only 160 American workers applied for those positions.