- The U.S. State Department is waiving interview requirements for first-time and returning agriculture workers applying for H-2A and H-2B visas, according to a release from the American Farm Bureau Federation.
- There were 243,000 H-2A workers approved in 2018, 93% of which came from Mexico. Reuters reported that the new regulations for Mexican visa operations risk causing a labor shortage in the U.S. that will lead to scarce supplies of produce for grocery stores.
- This adjustment to visa restrictions follows the U.S. government’s suspension of routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa processing services on March 18.
Farmworkers are caught in the crosshairs of coronavirus as the U.S. government looks to limit transmission and new cases from entering the country by limiting immigration. However, the Department of Homeland Security recently determined agricultural workers are part of the nation’s critical infrastructure.
The Wall Street Journal reported foreign workers on seasonal visas comprise 10% of the agriculture workforce. With such a dependence on foreign labor, there are farmers worrying the limits placed on workers looking to obtain these visas will result in crops rotting unharvested in the fields. And farmers have no time to lose. In April and May, Florida crops ready for harvest include blueberries, cantaloupe, carrots, cucumbers, mangoes, peaches and watermelon. In California, farms will harvest grapes, raspberries, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, peaches, plums, nectarines, cantaloupe and watermelons.
Although the expedited visa processing addresses farmers' concerns about lack of labor, coronavirus also poses a danger to the health of migrant workers. While many Americans are at home practicing social distancing and self-isolation, farmworkers are required to be out in the fields with other laborers, potentially increasing their risk of exposure.
Many farmworkers are Spanish speakers and may not be getting much information about the pandemic. The AP reports that receiving updates in languages other than English is a “mixed bag,” and the lack of bilingual material creates uncertainty through uneven access to information.
The constant threat of this virus poses an existential threat to manufacturers and companies. If it spreads between workers in facilities or fields, companies could find themselves with a labor shortage that may exacerbate the gaps already present as a result of immigration limitations.
A shortage of farmworkers will not only leave unharvested crops in the field. If harvests are lower than in previous years, grocery stores will have to compete for products, which will, in turn, drive up prices for consumers.
Currently, there is no fix-all solution as the government scrambles to find ways to keep residents safe and the supply chain functioning, though more information in Spanish about the pandemic access to benefits for farmworkers could be helpful. Multilingual information is slowly rolling out, but is not easily universally available.
Benefits have improved to some degree. Last week, Congress passed an law entitling “all workers” at private employers with fewer than 500 employees the right to 80 hours of paid sick leave. The California Farm Bureau Federation has a section on its website dedicated to explaining how the new law applies to agricultural workers.
Beyond the new law, advocacy groups are also working to improve working conditions on the farm. In a press release, the California Farm Bureau Federation said it is working with agricultural employers, health officials and government agencies to “adjust on-farm practices to account for social distancing and other measures to further assure the safety of our employees.” Provisions of this nature could go a long way to encouraging individuals to quarantine themselves and prevent transmission of coronavirus.
Going forward, there is no guarantee that these emergency provisions will remain in place. However, there is the possibility that, depending on the results of the 2020 harvest, farmworkers will remain classified as critical employees and will be granted additional protections to ensure they are healthy and able to work and feed Americans.