Understand the benefits and drawbacks of the H-2A visa program.

Farmers across the nation are facing an industry-wide challenge: labor shortage. The gap between available farming jobs and a willing workforce continues to widen. The average ratio of available farm jobs for every applicant is 2:1, and in California, it’s 4:1. Simply put, the agriculture industry needs more workers to adequately fill their operational needs.

As an increasing number of farm operators turn to the H-2A visa program for reliable labor, the push for reform grows. The Department of Labor’s proposed changes have recently gained momentum and industry support.

Learn more about the H-2A program’s benefits and pitfalls, and what revisions could be ahead for the program.

What is the H-2A Visa Program?

The H-2A Temporary Agriculture Workers Program enables farmers to hire legal farm hands from other countries. Citizens from selected countries are eligible to apply for an H-2A visa, which allows them to work in the United States. These visas apply only to seasonal and temporary agricultural jobs and have a one-year expiration date, with a maximum extension of three years. After that three-year period, visa holders must return to their home country and stay there for at least three months before applying again. Logically, it sounds like a practical solution to the labor shortage issue. But in practice, the H-2A program falls short on its ability to service the farm operator’s needs quickly and affordably.

The U.S. Department of Labor has established very specific requirements for eligibility. Before applying, farmers are required to demonstrate that they’ve made significant efforts to hire domestically before attempting to hire internationally. This means showing proof of taking out job advertisements and explaining why they may have rejected other U.S. applicants. Once this requirement has been met, farmers must complete a I-129 form, along with a $460 application fee for each potential employee.

Upon approval, farm operators are required to cover the cost of physically transportation for the laborer from his or her home country, in addition to the cost of housing and meals. As mandated by the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR), workers must receive the minimum wage that has been set by the Department of Labor, which can range anywhere from nine to ninety percent higher than the state minimum wage.

After a worker’s H-2A visa expires, the operator is required to repeat the process to secure labor for the next farm season.

Proposed Agriculture Workers Program Reform

Farmers and legislators agree that the current H-2A visa program needs updating. According to former Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, “The H-2A program needs to be replaced by something that works better for American agriculture.” In 2013 and 2017, Goodlatte introduced the “Agricultural Guestworker Act” (AGA), which proposed major changes, including eliminating the requirement to pay for housing and transportation. Ultimately, that bill did not pass. Other legislators have proposed a blue card system, which would provide legal status to current undocumented workers, giving them the chance to apply for a green card after a certain amount of time working in agriculture.

This past July, the U.S. Department of Labor proposed a rule to “modernize and improve” the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Labor Certification Program. Their proposal concentrates on streamlining and simplifying the application process by creating a digital platform for farm operators to complete and submit applications. The new system would afford American farmers the opportunity to stagger the entry of H-2A workers on a single application—cutting down on paperwork and time. The proposed changes would also look to strengthen protections on U.S. farmers, domestic workers, and foreign workers by improving the existing housing standards, better regulating violations of program rules, and adjusting the Adverse Effect Wage Rates to avoid adversely impacting domestic workers.

There have been several agriculture industry stakeholders who’ve stepped forward in support of the proposed changes, including the CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE), Michael Marsh. According to Mr. Marsh, “The breadth of this proposed rule is substantial.  NCAE will be working with its committees, members, and legal counsel to develop targeted, cogent comments to provide to the department.” His support is backed by several others including, the California Farm Bureau, Western Growers, and U.S. Apple Association.

Next Steps: Finding Ways to Cope with the Current H-2A Labor Program

While the U.S. Department of Labor is actively working towards a stronger H-2A program, there are a number of resources available to help farmers navigate the current visa program. For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently launched online tools to make the application process easier, including an interactive checklist and informative program page.

As for an alternative option, many operators are choosing to bridge the labor gap through advanced machine technology that assists with the planting and harvesting process. In recent years there has been significant advancements in the capabilities of agritech, including a new device that is capable of picking lettuce—a commodity known for being delicate and harder to harvest. While this technology can’t completely replace the farm workforce, it does alleviate some of the burden for operators and offers temporary relief until the H-2A program is reformed.

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