Farm Labor Crisis Gets President Trump’s Attention

08:17AM Jul 17, 2019
Workers check onions in a field for Hill Farms in New Mexico.
( Courtesy Hill Farms )

An average of 900,000 full-time jobs are available annually on U.S. crop farms, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), with many of those going unfilled. A Department of Labor’s (DoL) proposed rule, announced Monday, “to modernize and improve” the H-2A temporary agricultural workers program could change that. The program helps U.S. farmers fill employment gaps by allowing them to hire workers from other countries.

“President Trump once again shows his commitment to helping America’s farmers, ranchers, and producers continue to be the most productive in the world by increasing their access to a stable and legal workforce,” USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a prepared statement.

The EPI reports that approximately half of H-2A jobs in 2016 were certified in five states, most dominated by dairy or produce operations--California, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Washington.

Tom Karst, Editor of Farm Journal’s The Packer, says the produce industry welcomes the proposed rule, because the industry relies heavily on H-2A workers.  

“It looks like it's an accelerated process for rulemaking, and the changes could take effect by next year,” Karst notes.

The use of computerized technology to file job orders and applications is just one of the ways the DoL says it can simplify and speed-up the worker application process and make it possible for employers to stagger the entry of their H-2A employees on a single application.

Karst notes that there also is an element in the 489-page proposed rule document (which the Federal Register will publish on Wednesday) that indicates the DoL is evaluating H-2A worker wages, so they won’t compete with high-level, on-farm wage rates.

“For example, the rate for someone like a precision agriculture technician won’t be considered in creating the wage rate for a field worker that picks apples,” Karst says. “The lower wage rate would reflect that Americans are not competing for these jobs; they’re not being adversely affected.”

The one thing Karst says the produce industry is concerned about is that it believes additional reform is needed that will require Congress to address.

“We may need to expand the number of jobs (eligible for the H-2A program), like for the dairy and greenhouse industries, and create more flexibility and opportunities to have year-round participation in the H-2A program,” he explains.

That thought was echoed by the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, which stated, “While this new rule is welcome, a permanent solution to the labor crisis faced by agriculture is congressional action to address both current and future needs of the sector.”

Karst says he expects the need for H-2A workers to increase. He references information from the National Council of Agricultural Employers which estimates the number of jobs certified in 2019 will be close to 300,000.

“That's up from like 242,000 from last year,” Karst says. “It's harder to get employees today, given the low unemployment rates. The use of the program is increasing, despite the fact that it's expensive and there are considerable regulations to navigate.”

According to the DoL’s proposed rule, additional reforms to the H-2A program would:

  • Strengthen protections for U.S. and foreign workers by enhancing standards applicable to rental housing and public accommodations;
  • Strengthen surety bond requirements;
  • Expand the Department’s authority to use enforcement tools like program debarment for substantial violations of program rules;
  • Update the methods used to determine the Adverse Effect Wage Rates and prevailing wages to ensure U.S. workers similarly employed are not adversely impacted;
  • Expand access to the H-2A program by revising the definition of agricultural labor or services to include employers engaged in reforestation and pine straw activities.