Facing labor shortage, feds encourage farmers to hire foreign workers already in the U.S.

Tobacco Workers h2A

AP Photo/Messenger-Inquirer, Jenny Sevcik

Tobacco Workers h2A

AP Photo/Messenger-Inquirer, Jenny Sevcik

Producers worry that workforce gaps now will lead to food supply issues during harvest season.

The Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Labor (DOL) are urging producers to hire foreign farm workers already working in the U.S. from other ag employers after their contracts end. The move is part of an ongoing effort to mitigate a potential labor shortage that could have serious food supply consequences. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the initiative on Thursday afternoon, in response to farmers’ concerns about workforce disruptions due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It encourages those in need of farm workers to hire within a pool of 20,000 certified H-2A workers, who may soon be available to take over an unexpected job vacancy after their current gigs are up. Under normal circumstances, an H-2A worker is certified to work for a specific employer within a designated time frame, after which they return to their home country. This move urges producers to consider hiring foreigners domestically.

“American farmers and ranchers are at the frontlines of maintaining the nation’s food supply,” said Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia (son of Supreme Court judge Antonin) in an accompanying press release. “In these unprecedented times, it is critical for them to have the workforce they need. This new partnership between USDA and DOL will help support our farmers, ranchers, and American families.”

“If someone were to ask me, “What would be the absolute most disastrous time for something like this to happen?’ It would be exactly when it did happen.”

The H-2A program for temporary foreign farm workers brings in more than 240,000 workers annually. Ninety percent of them come from Mexico, according to a University of California Davis analysis of DOL data. Other major origin countries include South Africa, Jamaica, and Peru. Nearly all American embassies and consulates in the above countries have suspended visa processing due to Covid-19 concerns. (The American Farm Bureau told the Food and Reporting Network that one major consulate in Mexico would remain open.)

The shutdowns have raised serious concerns among American farmers, who rely heavily on the H-2A visa program in March and April, known as planting season and one of the most labor-intensive periods of the year.

“If someone were to ask me, “What would be the absolute most disastrous time for something like this to happen?’ It would be exactly when it did happen,” says Joel Anderson, an immigration attorney and executive director of Snake River Farmers Association, an organization that helps farmers in Idaho connect with H-2A workers.

The association files 800 H-2A applications every year. 522 of them—or 65 percent—are for workers who arrive between March 1 and April 15, Anderson tells me.

In this past week, USDA has announced a number of efforts to stave off a labor shortage. For example, workers are typically required to go through an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate as part of the H-2A application process. On Tuesday, USDA and the Department of State announced it would waive the interview step of the process for all returning workers.

“Every one of those workers is very important to the agricultural economy.”

Michael Marsh, president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, a trade group that represents farmers and farm managers, applauded the move. He suggests that farmers affected by the consulate shutdowns, such as those waiting on new H-2A workers, could benefit from hiring those already in the U.S. instead.

“Every one of those workers is very important to the agricultural economy,” he says. “Because once you’re down one worker on an operation, you know, that means it’s so food is not going to be harvested.”

Farmers have expressed concerns about labor shortages even before Covid-19 hit, from California vineyards to apricot farms in Idaho. The ongoing pandemic will likely exacerbate those issues, though eaters down the food chain might not feel the impacts of it until later on.

“We’re probably all in the same boat,” says Manuel Fick, CEO of USA Farm Labor, an H-2A contractor, referring to the coronavirus crisis. “The big thing is this boat has a long term implication: If there isn’t a crop in the ground, I don’t know what you will eat next year.”

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.