( Department of Labor )

Fueled by a tight supply of legal farm workers, the number of H-2A temporary agricultural workers certified soared by more than 20% in the past year.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Foreign Labor Certification said that the number of H-2A workers certified in fiscal year 2018 (October 2017 through September 2018) totaled 242,762 positions, up 21% from 200,649 positions certified in fiscal year 2017 and 47% higher than 165,741 positions certified in fiscal year 2016.

The growth in demand for H-2A workers is taking place all over the country, said Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers.

President Donald Trump in October asked every government agency to cut their budget by 5% for the next fiscal year.

If reduced funding hurts the ability of the Department of Labor to process H-2A applications, that is potentially a problem for growers, Marsh said.

With demand for the program expected to continue to grow, the department may be faced with processing more applications with less funding.

“Particularly as that program is going to continue to grow, they need to have the ability to handle all that additional throughput so that we do have access to a ready, willing, able and authorized workforce,” he said.

Marsh said the industry is watching for notice of proposed rulemaking within the next few weeks from the Trump administration signaling the start of reform to the H-2A program.

Reform of H-2A rules was something the NCAE and others asked for at the beginning of the Trump administration, and a joint statement in May from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Labor promised efforts to streamline, simplify and improve the program.

After taking and considering comments, the Trump administration hopes to have any reforms in place by Oct. 1 of 2019, Marsh said.

“The reform effort is really going to be a big deal for current and future users of the H-2A program and will have an opportunity to help shape the future of that program,” he said.

Some reforms, such as changing the way wage rates are calculated for the program, may have to be addressed by legislation, Marsh said. There also is a desire to make the seasonal worker program (now limited to a maximum of 10 months) applicable to year-round agricultural operations, such as mushroom production, greenhouses, and dairy operations.

The top ten states for H-2A positions certified in fiscal year 2018, and percent of total U.S. positions, were:

  • Georgia: 321,364, 13.3% of U.S. total;
  • Florida: 30,462, 12.5% of U.S. total;
  • Washington: 24,682, 10.2% of U.S. total;
  • North Carolina: 21,7934, 9% of U.S. total;
  • California: 18,908, 7.8% of U.S. total;
  • Louisiana: 10,079, 4.2% of U.S. total; 
  • Michigan: 8,359, 3.4% of U.S. total;
  • New York: 7,634, 3.1% of U.S. total;
  • Kentucky: 7,604, 3.1% of U.S. total;
  • Arizona, 7,497, 3.1% of U.S. total.

The top ten crops/occupations for H-2A positions is fiscal year 2018  were:

  • Berries: 25,424, 10.5% of total positions;
  • General farm workers: 24,414, 10.1% of total positions;
  • Tobacco: 18,652, 7.7% of total positions:
  • Apples: 14,920: 6.1% of total positions;
  • Melons: 111,026, 4.5% of total positions:
  • Fruits and vegetables: 10,858, 4.5% of total positions;
  • Lettuce: 9,758, 4% of total positions;
  • Corn: 8,254, 3.4% of total positions;
  • Cherries: 7,245, 3% of total positions; and 
  • Nursery and greenhouse workers: 7,117, 2.9% of total positions.