Changes announced recently to the federal H-2A visa program will make the process of hiring foreign workers for agriculture on a temporary or seasonal basis more expensive and add more layers of bureaucracy to the process of finding people to hire, says Sonoma County, Calif., farmer Jeff Carlton, who has used the H-2A visa program for more than three years.
The U.S. Department of Labor has reversed rules written by the Bush administration that made the program a little easier for farm employers to use. The new rule increases workers’ wages and requires producers to do what they can to hire domestic workers to fill agricultural jobs. The new rule was published in the Federal Register and takes effect March 15.
“This just makes it tougher to find workers, especially if the Department of Labor wants us to try and find domestic workers to do agricultural work,” Carlton says.
“Before, you had to place an ad to try to find domestic workers, and when you couldn’t find them locally, then that showed the need for hiring workers from outside of the United States. By adding more layers of bureaucracy to the process, it will be tougher for us to find workers, because no one around here wants to do this work.”
Farm Operations Affected
Bryan Little, director of labor affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation, says the new ruling will have an impact on farm operations in the state.
“Congress intended for this program to be able to provide growers with a reasonable safety valve to make sure they have an adequate number of legal workers when they can’t recruit them in any other way,” he says.
“What the Department of Labor is doing with the new rule is effectively shutting off that safety valve.”
Little says a relatively small number of California producers use the H-2A program now, and the new rule “is going to make it very difficult” for them to continue using the program.
In changing the program, the Department of Labor focused on the process for obtaining labor certifications and protections afforded to the temporary foreign workers and the domestic agricultural work force. The new rule ensures that U.S. workers in the same occupation working for the same employer, regardless of date of hire, receive no less than the same wage as foreign workers.
“In some places, wages will go up and in some places, they won’t,” says Little. “It depends on where you were with the system that was in place and the time that this rule goes into effect.”
Different System In Place
In the past, wages were calculated using the Occupational Employment Service (OES) system run by the Department of Labor, as opposed to the Adverse Effect Wage Rate Index calculated by USDA. The OES system was so decentralized before, Little says, that you could be a farmer operating in two different counties and have to pay people in one county a significantly greater amount per hour than the people in the other county.
“As a result of the new rule, agricultural employers who hire H-2A workers will wind up paying everyone the higher of the two wages,” he says.
The rule also reinstates the 50 percent rule, which means if an employer cannot hire domestic employees after investing in recruiting and therefore must hire workers through the H-2A program, and if a domestic worker applies for that job before the contract reaches half its duration, the employer would have to hire that worker, displacing H-2A workers in the process.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security may not approve an H-2A visa petition unless the Department of Labor, through its Employment and Training Administration, certifies that there are not sufficient U.S. workers qualified and available to perform the labor involved in the petition.
California Farm Bureau Federation published this article. For more information, contact Christine Souza at firstname.lastname@example.org.