A shortage of farm guest workers could threaten America’s harvest
Published 23 April 2020
Immigrants using the H-2A visa play a crucial role in our food system. COVID-19 is adding to the concerns about America's shortage of farm guest workers.
Harvest season is here
Right now, acres and acres of lettuce sit ready to be picked in California’s Salinas Valley – an area known as the Salad Bowl of the World. But who will harvest it?
The Golden State is an agricultural powerhouse, producing more than 400 commodities, including one-third of all US-grown vegetables and two-thirds of our fruits and nuts. In 2019, California’s agriculture exports totaled US$21.02 billion, ranking first among all states in the value of farm exports for the last twenty years. California’s almonds are a favorite of the European Union, its dairy products ship to Mexico, California pistachios travel to China, and the state’s high quality rice is increasingly popular in Japan.
Spring means harvest season is here – or will be soon – for many crops in California and around the country, from asparagus to cucumbers to tomatoes and more. Thousands of workers are needed to pick these crops. And over the years, those workers have become harder and harder to find – a challenge that is being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Labor shortages cause farm losses
The American Farm Bureau Federation says that US agriculture needs 1.5 to 2 million hired workers. These challenging, often seasonal, positions are essential to food production – but few US citizens are willing to fill them. A California Farm Bureau Federation survey found that 56 percent of California farmers have been unable to find all the workers they need during the last five years.
While some farmers are shifting to labor-saving technologies, others can’t afford the expense of mechanization. And many of the high-value fruits and vegetables that California is known for must be harvested by hand to ensure their quality.
Given this chronic labor shortage, immigrants – most from Mexico – play an increasingly crucial role in our food system. Foreign-born workers can legally come to the United States to perform short-term farm labor under the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Worker Program, often referred to as the H-2A visa program.
Temporary labor through H-2A program
The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 established the agriculture-focused H-2A program and a separate H-2B program for skilled workers in industries like healthcare and tech. The H-2A program is the primary way that U.S. farmers can legally hire immigrant labor from countries deemed eligible by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The process requires several steps and fees.
To participate, farmers must first receive a temporary labor certification for H-2A workers from the Department of Labor (DOL). This should be submitted 60 to 75 days before workers are needed. Then, farmers must file a petition to the DHS U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS). After USCIS approves the petition, prospective H-2A workers outside the US apply for a visa through the U.S. Department of State at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate and seek admission to the US with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at a U.S. Port of Entry.
Open positions unable to fill
Rules are in place so that the H-2A program does not take jobs from domestic workers or lower the average wage. Before hiring H-2A workers, farm employers must demonstrate to the DOL that they are unable to recruit U.S. citizens for their open positions. They are also required to pay a state-specific minimum wage that may not be lower than the average wage for crop and livestock workers in their region during the prior year, known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate.
Once approved, H-2A visa holders are allowed to work in the U.S. temporarily. The visa can be re-approved annually for up to three years. A worker loses their H-2A status if they leave their job. After a worker has three years of H-2A status, they are required to leave the United States for at least three months before applying to receive a H-2A visa again. The H-2A visa does not apply to a worker’s family members and does not give workers a way to gain permanent legal status. Unlike the H-2B program, there is no cap set on the total number of H-2A visas that can be granted each year.
Greater need than visas
In 2019, nearly 258,000 immigrant workers were granted H-2A visas, with most working in Florida, Georgia, Washington, California, and North Carolina. Participation has jumped from 48,000 positions certified in 2005. However, the number of farm workers that are needed each year far surpasses the number of H-2A visas that are granted. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that the percentage of farm workers who are not legally authorized to work in the United States grew from 14 percent in 1989 to more than 50 percent in recent years.
While the H-2A program has grown in size, both farmers and farm worker advocates are critical of it. Farmers say it is a complicated, expensive process to navigate. Furthermore, year-round agriculture sectors like dairy farming, pork production or even mushroom farming can’t use the program since it is only available to seasonal industries. Labor groups argue H-2A needs reform to provide more protections to workers.
Agriculture’s workforce challenges recently received some attention on Capitol Hill. In December 2019, the full House of Representatives passed the bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act (H.R. 5038). Among its many changes, the bill would make H-2A more flexible for employers and establish a new, capped program for year-round workers. It would also provide a pathway to permanent resident status for farm workers and include new enforcement measures. While the House’s passage of H.R. 5038 marks the first time that body has approved immigration legislation since 1986, the bill has not received a vote in the Senate.
The Trump Administration has also shown interest in updating the H-2A program, streamlining the application process on the USDA website. DOL issued a proposed rule in September 2019 that would update how the Adverse Effect Wage Rate is calculated, among other provisions. That rule has not yet been finalized. Additionally, in October 2019 the DOL issued a final rule to modernize the market labor test by allowing farmers to advertise jobs on a central online registry rather than a local print newspaper.
COVID exacerbating labor shortage
Travel restrictions and government closures due to COVID-19 are adding to the concerns about America’s shortage of farm workers. The US stopped processing non-emergency visas like H-2A in Mexico on March 18, 2020 out of health concern for US embassy employees. This immediately led to calls of alarm from agriculture stakeholders who are looking ahead to a busy spring and summer season.
The State Department later said it would continue processing H-2A applications and granted new flexibility so both new or returning workers would not be required to go to a US consulate for an interview according to social distancing protocol. The DOL announced additional, temporary H-2A flexibilities in April 2020 to help prevent a labor shortage. However, governments around the globe continue to enforce travel restrictions to limit the spread of the coronavirus, potentially keeping workers from the harvest.
Some farmers are reporting that they are unable to get workers on time. In Canada, foreign workers have been delayed by border restrictions and canceled flights. Once they arrive, the Canadian government requires workers to be quarantined for 14 days (with pay) before they can begin work. The United States does not have a similar quarantine requirement but American farmers are concerned that fruit and vegetable harvests will still be impacted. Workers who have arrived are in the fields for longer hours due to the labor shortfall. Abad Hernandez Cruz, a Mexican farm worker in Georgia, told Reuters why he is working 12 plus hours a day: “if the farm doesn’t produce, the city doesn’t eat.”
Agriculture is a critical industry
Agriculture has been deemed a critical industry during the pandemic. Americans are seeing firsthand the strengths and vulnerabilities of our complex food supply chain. One paradox is that farmers across the country have been forced to dump millions of gallons of milk and destroy millions of pounds of fresh food while some grocery store shelves go bare. The widespread closure of restaurants, hotels and schools has left farmers with no market for half of their crops due largely to the differences in Americans’ eating habits while quarantined at home.
So far, a lack of labor has not been a major force behind this food dumping. However, the situation could change if the pandemic persists longer into the harvest season or if farm workers begin testing positive for COVID-19. Farmers are also concerned that fewer workers will apply for H-2A visas over fears of catching the virus. Without enough workers, leafy greens, berries and cucumbers would likely be the first crops to be left fallow, followed by peaches, plums, nectarines, and citrus.
The important role that guest workers play in ensuring America’s food supply during the pandemic underscores the interconnected nature of global agriculture trade. In reality, without H-2A and other immigrant labor, that romaine lettuce in Salinas would never make it to your salad bowl, or to other dinner tables around the world.