Labor Department Proposes H-2A Changes

Ag Secretary Says New Rule Eases Burden on US Farmers

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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Farm workers in California walk fields. More than half of the U.S. agriculture workforce is undocumented. The U.S. Department of Labor proposed a new rule this week designed to simplify the H-2A guest-worker program. (DTN/Progressive Farmer file photo by Jim Patrico)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The U.S. Department of Labor on Monday proposed a number of changes to federal rules on the H-2A guest-worker program designed to simplify a program that has been a burden to agriculture.

A 489-page agency proposal includes a number of possible changes to the program. That includes requiring the use of electronic filing of applications for temporary employment certification, setting new methods for determining wages for immigrant workers, and setting a 30-day rule to require employers to provide employment to any "qualified, eligible" U.S. worker who applies for the job until 30 calendar days from the employer's first date of need for temporary workers.

In addition, the proposed rule would allow the staggering of H-2A workers' entry into the U.S. The agency said in its proposed rule this procedure would provide employers with the "flexibility to accommodate changing weather and production conditions that are inherent to agricultural work."

The proposal to stagger workers' entry would reduce the need for employers to file multiple H-2A applications for the same occupational classification "in which the only difference is the expected start date of work."

Farmers are relying more heavily on the H-2A agricultural guest-worker program, but the H-2A is rife with paperwork and administrative issues that hinder harvest.

In October 2018, an American Farm Bureau Federation analysis, https://www.fb.org/…, found a record demand for temporary farm labor under the H-2A program at 242,762 certified positions, or a 21% increase from 2017.

Agriculture groups have raised a number of concerns about the program. H-2A is a seasonal program that doesn't work for livestock operations such as dairy that need full-time, year-round workers.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement on Monday that the proposal will simplify the H-2A process.

"The proposed rule will increase access to a reliable legal agricultural workforce, easing unnecessary burdens on farmers, increase enforcement against fraud and abuse, all while maintaining protections for America's workers," he said.

"When this rule goes into effect, our farmers will be released from unnecessary and burdensome regulations, allowing them to do what they do best."

National Council of Farmer Cooperatives CEO Chuck Conner said in a statement the rule is a good start toward improving the H-2A program.

"In issuing a proposed rule today on changes to the H-2A visa program for agricultural guest workers, the department of labor is taking a significant step to improve a system in need of a dramatic overhaul," he said.

"While we are still reviewing the details of the rule, we understand that it contains provisions that will help streamline the program and simplify the process for the farmers and growers who use it. 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. NCFC will continue to work with policy makers and other stakeholders to find a path forward for such a solution."

Congress has repeatedly attempted to reform the H-2A program during the past two decades, and each time, Congress has advanced a bill, only for it to be derailed.

During an April 2019 House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship hearing, Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers, said the H-2A has tripled from 80,000 positions in 2008 to more than 240,000 positions in 2018.

At least half of agricultural workers are undocumented, he said. Rodriguez said farmworkers often are put to work in untenable conditions because of a lack of enforcement on labor conditions.

Read the proposed rule here: https://www.foreignlaborcert.doleta.gov/…

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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(AG/BAS)

Todd Neeley