Labor Department and Farmers on Collision Course Over Farm Labor

Farm leaders from around the nation held a news conference in Washington on April 22, 2016, to say that the U.S. Department of Labor is threatening the livelihoods of farmers and the 2016 crop season.

Farm leaders from around the nation held a news conference in Washington on April 22, 2016, to say that the U.S. Department of Labor is threatening the livelihoods of farmers and the 2016 crop season.

They allege that delays in processing visas for temporary, nonimmigrant workers who tend and harvest America’s food crops are fast approaching crisis proportions, all but guaranteeing that crops will rot in the field on many farms this year, according to American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall.

President Duvall, who previously served as President of the Georgia Farm Bureau, stated that the Department of Labor is required to approve H-2A applications 30 days prior to when farmers need workers in the field, but that deadline is routinely missed.

“The backlog is about 30 days in the processing of H2A applications,” Duvall said. “Crops are not going to wait for the labor to get there. Crops will continue to mature and rot in the field if we do not get something done and done quickly.”

Michigan Director of Agriculture and Rural Development Jamie Clover Adams said that “something needs to be done to get the entities that work on H-2A to coordinate and work together. I learned yesterday that they don’t always talk to one another.”

The H-2A program requires involvement of three federal agencies – Department of Agriculture, Department of Labor, and the Department of Homeland Security.

“The same problems we identified 19 years ago still exist today,” said Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black. “The dialogue at times has been civil and perhaps sometimes not, but I would hope it would be constructive. I look for a day when we are going to have constructive solution and or a dialogue.”

In the program, before the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) can approve an employer’s petition for temporary, nonimmigrant workers (H-2A workers) to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature, the employer must file an application with the Labor Department’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA) stating, among other things, that there are not sufficient workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available, and that the employment of aliens will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of workers similarly employed in the U.S.

Any employer using H-2A workers must have initially attempted to find U.S. workers to fill these jobs.

The Labor Department has released figures indicating that year-to-date for Fiscal Year 2016 they have processed 90 percent of H-2A applications in a timely manner. DOL defines “timely” as the percentage of “complete H-2A applications resolved 30 days before the start date of need.”

“A complete H-2A application is defined as one containing all the documentation (e.g., housing inspection report, workers’ compensation, recruitment report) necessary for the OFLC Certifying Officer to issue a final determination 30 days before the start date of need,” according to the Labor Department’s web site.

The complaint comes at a time of rising employment in the U.S., during a presidential election year, and while controversies continue over the role of foreign workers in the United States workforce.

Farmers have contended for some time that American workers are unwilling to take the types of jobs that are filled by these temporary, nonimmigrant foreign workers, while worker groups have charged that farmers prefer foreign workers who are more likely to be compliant and will not cause trouble for fear of being sent back to their home countries.

The entire American Farm Bureau Federation’s news conference can be downloaded here.

About the Author

Michael Wald is a public affairs consultant and writer based in the Atlanta area. He specializes in topics related to government and labor issues. Prior to his retirement from the U.S. Department of Labor, he served as the agency’s Southeast Regional Director of Public Affairs and Southeast Regional Economist.