Navigate the Ag Labor Squeeze: What You Need to Know about H-2A for 2020

In the last 10 years, there’s been a 20 percent increase in the number of crop production jobs, and 18 percent in livestock jobs . Farmers are looking to programs like the H-2A agricultural worker visa program to fill the gap when it comes to sourcing the seasonal labor they need. With travel restrictions and visa processing limitations this year due to COVID-19, access to that workforce is limited.

To share some expert insight on the program, we asked Michael Marsh, President and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE), and Kathy Peterson, Founder of PeopleWorks and fifth-generation Iowa farmer to address what they see as key issues related to H-2A during our recent COVID-19 roundtable on labor.

Why is H-2A still important?

H-2A continues to fill a significant gap in the farm labor pool. In 2019, there were 257,667 certified H-2A workers, accounting for about 10% of the total number of agricultural production workers in the U.S. That’s a 50% increase in H-2A workers since 2015 alone, and Michael Marsh reminds us that even with H-2A, there aren’t enough individuals to fill the 2.6 million agriculture positions hired by America’s farmers and ranches. The majority of H-2A workers are from Mexico (nearly 190,000), followed by Jamaica and South Africa (each around 5,000).

Why aren’t domestic workers filling agriculture jobs?

Kathy Peterson attributes some of it to urban flight. “There are a lot of young people who aren’t exposed to agriculture today. If you talk to people who grew up 50 or 60 years ago, more of them were exposed to agriculture because they grew up rurally. Today, the majority of Americans don’t know where their food comes from, and that impacts labor.”

Another reason is many Americans just don’t want those jobs, even during a recession (despite a nearly 11 percent unemployment, the Great Recession didn’t drive domestic American workers to farm labor jobs). This trend isn’t unique to the U.S., Michael explains. Countries across the world are having to fill jobs their native population won’t show up to do. “When you look around the globe, you have Eastern Europeans moving into Western Europe, folks from Bangladesh flowing into Thailand, and workers from India going to Bangladesh. It occurs around the world.”

Compare the cost of H-2A vs. domestic workers

While the availability of labor may influence a farmer’s decision to pursue temporary H-2A workers, that labor doesn’t necessarily come cheap. As Michael explains, farmers are required to pay an H-2A worker either their state’s minimum wage or the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) if it’s higher. In addition, the farmer has to provide transportation, meals and housing, and cover any costs related to the worker’s visa.

The intent behind the AEWR is to ensure that H-2A employment doesn’t negatively impact domestic farmworkers by lowering the average wage. Per the U.S. Department of Labor (USDL), for FY2020 the AEWR ranged from $11.71 (in Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina) to $15.83 (in Oregon and Washington). Warns Michael, if current trends continue, the AEWR will increase by more than 50% between 2015 and 2025.

“With many states talking about paying folks a ‘living wage,’ the H-2A program may seem more appealing at first, but dig deeper,” he adds. “If you hire an H-2A worker, you could be at $14.99 an hour plus housing, meals, transportation and visa costs.

“We need to get the USDL to change course on the AEWR to where labor costs are sustainable,” concludes Michael. “If a farmer or rancher can’t make a profit every now and again, the operation is not sustainable, and wages are a key determinant in that.”

Plan for the H-2A hurdles

If you decide to pursue H-2A, know that you need to plan well in advance. “First, you have to prove you can’t find domestic workers. Once your petition gets through the USDL, then you’ll need to work with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to attain the visas, and find help recruiting the foreign workers. The process can take several months,” he says.

Despite all the cross-border restrictions due to COVID-19, the current administration has been working with the agricultural community to ensure access to the H-2A workforce. He offers the example of South Africa. “While the South African government shut down all flights going in and out of the country, they agreed to allow charter flights to bring South African workers to harvest crops in the Midwest and South — but not at a small price. Each plane ticket from South Africa was $1,700.”

However, there are some bright spots occurring: under a temporary final rule published on April 20, 2020, by the USCIS, farmers who already have a temporary labor certification (TLC) can access foreign workers in valid H-2A status who are already in the U.S., with some restrictions.

Integrating H-2A workers with your existing workforce

Kathy echoes Michael on the need for significant planning when employing H-2A workers. “I have a few clients that use H-2A workers seasonally alongside their existing team, and there’s definitely a learning curve on both ends. It’s critical that your current team understands how they can utilize and work best with the H-2A folks, and good, frequent communication plays a huge part in that.”

Will technology replace the farm worker?

The roundtable concluded with a discussion around unexpected labor changes going forward. “With the advent of COVID-19 and rapidly escalating wages, we’re almost in a perfect storm for a significant change in agriculture labor,” said Michael. For example, as consumers, Americans eat a lot of labor-intensive crops. The lack of labor for fresh produce growers has driven imports to grow nearly 90% in the last 20 years, putting a huge dent in U.S. farm income and the GDP.

“At some point, technology will become available to pick an apple from a tree and not bruise it. We already have robots milking cows. From a purely economic standpoint, we may very quickly reach a point where it makes more sense to employ a machine rather than a person, particularly for labor intensive agriculture. Farmers and ranchers will be forced to look at alternatives because they can no longer afford the labor.”

Whatever happens, Michael encourages farmers to stay abreast of changes and updates to the H-2A program. He recommends consulting his own organization, the National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE), the United States Department of Agriculture, as well as the USCIS.

What’s your hiring strategy for seasonal labor? Did you find this article valuable? Tweet us @GranularAg and tell us what you think!

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