Foreign Worker Shortages Threaten American Agriculture

A group of agriculture-related organizations sent a letter to President Trump saying that their industry is threatened by a lack of foreign workers. The author discusses how this coincides with current agency laws.

America’s $985 billion agriculture industry “is threatened by the lack of a reliable, stable and legal workforce” due to a shortage of foreign workers, according to a letter sent to President Trump by the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, a group of 70 agriculture and agriculture-related organizations in the U.S.

Coalition members stress that while they support enforcement of immigration laws and strengthening border security, “we must also relieve pressure on the border by providing a lawful path for foreign workers to enter the U.S. on a nonimmigrant basis.”

The coalition includes some of the nation’s largest farm-related organizations, such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, which describes itself as the voice of agriculture with more than 6 million members and regularly ranks as one of the nation’s largest contributors to Federal political campaigns.

The U.S. issued over 89,000 H-2A visas in 2014, with more than 90% of them going to Mexican citizens, but the agricultural community has long complained that the present H-2A program, which allows U.S. agricultural employers to legally hire foreign workers on a seasonal or temporary basis, is too cumbersome to meet their needs.

Their solution is to modernize “our immigration system to include work eligibility for our existing workforce and farmer-friendly programs to provide future legal guest workers.”

“Simply put, farm employers cannot grow and create jobs unless they know they will have workers, today and tomorrow, to help with harvesting, caring for livestock, and feeding the world.”

The coalition is concerned both about shortages of seasonal or temporary workers and also wants to increase the amount of time an H-2A worker may remain in the U.S.

The letter states:

while many others in agriculture can attempt to utilize the current but dysfunctional H-2A temporary and seasonal guest worker program, those with dairy, livestock, and mushroom operations cannot utilize this or any other program because of their year-round, rather than seasonal, need. For dairy farmers, cows must be milked twice a day, 365 days a year. Thus, they are left without any legal channel to find workers when U.S. workers are simply not available or not interested.

During Sonny Perdue’s confirmation hearing for Secretary of Agriculture, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) asked the former Georgia governor to find a way to allow H-2A workers to remain in the United States for a longer period of time. Perdue promised he would work on the issue.

Under current law, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers the program, “may grant H-2A classification for up to the period of time authorized on the temporary labor certification.  H-2A classification may be extended for qualifying employment in increments of up to 1 year each.  A new, valid temporary labor certification covering the requested time must accompany each extension request.  The maximum period of stay in H-2A classification is 3 years. A person who has held H-2A nonimmigrant status for a total of 3 years must depart and remain outside the United States for an uninterrupted period of 3 months before seeking readmission as an H-2A nonimmigrant.   Additionally, previous time spent in other H or L classifications counts toward total H-2A time.”

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division enforces current H-2A rules by conducting farm inspections. The WHD verifies that foreign workers are not displacing American workers and ensures that pay and living conditions for H-2A workers meets Federal regulations.

With DOL facing a 21% cut in funding, it is unclear whether the Wage and Hour Division would have enough staff to continue enforcing current rules, let alone any new requirements.

You can read the entire letter here.

Members of the Agriculture Workforce Coalition include:

Agricultural Council of California, Agricultural Retailers Association, Agri-Mark, Inc., Alabama Farmers Cooperative, Inc., Almond Alliance of California, Amcot, Inc., American Beekeeping Federation, American Farm Bureau Federation, AmericanHort, American Mushroom Institute, American Sugar Cane League, Apricot Producers of California, Aurora Cooperative, California Canning Peach Association, California Citrus Mutual, California Date Commission, California Dried Plum Board, California Fig Advisory Board, California Fresh Fruit Association, California Strawberry Commission, California Walnut Commission, Ceres Solutions, LLP, Co-Alliance, LLP, Cooperative Network, CropLife America, Dairy Business Milk Marketing Cooperative, Idaho Dairymen’s Association, Iowa Institute for Cooperatives, Farm Credit East, Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, Gulf Citrus Growers Association, Michigan Farm Bureau, Michigan Milk Producers Association, National All-Jersey, National Cotton Council, National Cotton Ginners Association, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, National Council of Agricultural Employers, National Farmers Union, National Grange, National Milk Producers Federation, National Onion Association, National Peach Council, National Potato Council, North American Blueberry Council, Northwest Farm Credit Services, Northwest Food Processors Association, NORPAC Foods, Inc., Olive Growers Council of California, Oregon Cherry Growers, Inc., Pacific Coast Producers, Producers Cooperative Association, South East Dairy Farmers Association, Southern States Cooperative, Inc., Sun-Maid Growers of California, Sunsweet Growers, Inc., United Dairymen of Arizona, United Egg Producers, United Fresh Produce Association, U.S. Apple Association, USA Farmers, USA Rice, U.S. Sweet Potato Council, U.S. Tobacco Cooperative Inc., Valley Fig Growers, Western Growers, Western United Dairymen, Wine Institute, and the Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association.

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.