American Farms May Face Labor Shortages Due to Migrant Worker Visa Suspensions

The USDA and Department of Labor are working to find a solution.

Despite Americans' recent bout of panic buying and stockpiling in the age of COVID-19, experts continue to say that we won’t see significant food shortages (at least the experts CNBC is talking to). However, though consumers hopefully won’t see any major disruptions, the farmers growing our fruits and vegetables might not be so lucky. In response to the coronavirus, this week, the federal government said it would temporarily stop processing H-2A visas in Mexico which allows seasonal farmworkers into the U.S.—a move that the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC) said “will undoubtedly cause a significant disruption to the U.S. food supply.”

It turns out, the Trump administration doesn’t completely disagree because, yesterday, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) were working together to help deal with the issue. “Ensuring minimal disruption for our agricultural workforce during these uncertain times is a top priority for this administration,” Perdue said in a statement. “President Trump knows that these workers are critical to maintaining our food supply and our farmers and ranchers are counting on their ability to work. We will continue to work to make sure our supply chain is impacted as minimally as possible.”

Close up of a strawberry plant in a farm field with luscious red berries ready for harvest, includes a cardboard box in a wood basket to pick berries into
N8tureGrl/Getty Images

Of course, identifying a problem and solving it are two very different things; still, the USDA and DOL believe they could have a plan (emphasis theirs, believe it or not). The two departments “have identified nearly 20,000 H-2A and H-2B certified positions that have expiring contracts in the coming weeks. There will be workers leaving these positions who could be available to transfer to a different employer’s labor certification,” a USDA press release explained. The result is a 40-page PDF file containing “the number of certified worker positions, the current employer name and contact, attorney/agent name and contact, and the worksite address.”

So in theory, farms in need of staff can proactively try to grab H-2A workers who are already in the U.S. from other companies—assuming those workers don’t already have plans or restrictions of their own. But as Modern Farmer points out, plenty of other potential roadblocks exist, too. “Many H-2A holders are skilled workers in specific areas, and may not be trained to work in whatever other aspect of agriculture needs workers,” the site explains. “That also doesn’t account for the fact that even before the suspension of H-2A in Mexico, there was already an intense shortage of farm labor.” Reportedly, about 250,000 H-2A visas were granted in 2018, meaning 20,000 workers accounts for less than 10 percent of the H-2A workforce.

Meanwhile, the AWC had a different idea. “In order to ensure uninterrupted food, crop, and commodity production, we urge [the federal government] to recognize all H-2A, as well as any other non-immigrant visa petition involving an agricultural worker, visa consular processing functions as ‘essential’ and direct the U.S. Consulates to treat all agricultural worker appointments as emergency visa services,” the group wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It’s not a far-fetched concept: If some states are classifying the people who stock grocery stores as essential workers, it seems like the people growing food might be worthy of the distinction as well.

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