Farmers who use the H-2A guest worker program are facing COVID-19-related delays in the processing and approval of those workers.
Effective March 18, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico said the embassy and all U.S. consulates in Mexico will suspend routine immigrant and non-immigrant visa services because of social distancing precautions related to the global pandemic COVID-19.
On the heels of that, the Department of Homeland Security on March 19 issued a document on what it is calling the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce during the outbreak, putting farm workers and people in the food supply chain in that group.
That same day, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a partnership between the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Labor to help find both foreign and domestic workers for agriculture during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Ensuring minimal disruption for our agricultural workforce during these uncertain times is a top priority for this administration,” Perdue said in the release. “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.”
Last year, the H-2A program brought in more than 200,000 guest workers, the biggest number yet, and growth was expected again this year.
For Shay Myers, CEO of Owyhee Produce, Nyssa, Ore., the delays in processing H-2A workers will cost him the company’s asparagus and sweet potato crops. The company was planning to bring in 48 H-2A workers from Mexico to harvest the firm’s asparagus crop and then help plant the sweet potato crop.
State Department officials, however, told him they could only deliver five workers to his farm when harvest begins in early April.
“We will lose our entire asparagus crop,” and won’t be able to plant sweet potatoes, he said March 18.
No domestic workers are available to harvest asparagus, even at $15 per hour or more.
“We need people to realize that if we don’t have workers, they don’t have food,” he said, “This is an absolute, complete disruption to our food supply.”
Global response varies
The H-2A outlook for 2020 is “kind of a mixed bag” because of complications from the pandemic, said Micheal Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers.
The U.S. consulate in South Africa, for example, has said it will process H-2A applications on emergency basis. In Jamaica, also a source of H-2A workers, an employee in the U.S. consulate became ill and it has suspended processing applications until April.
Marsh said the Mexican consulate in Monterrey is expected to prioritize H-2A applications for workers who have interview waivers, mostly because they have been in the program before.
“If they have got a waiver of the interview, then the State Department in Monterrey is going to prioritize those applications because there’s no person-to-person contact in the interview area,” he said. There’s a possibility that interviews can be done with video conferencing.
Marsh said the number of H-2A workers who will receive “interview waivers” is unknown, but he said some estimates put the number at least 50% to 55%.
Mexico is the largest supplier of H-2A workers to the U.S., said Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of public policy and government relations for AmericanHort. About 70% of H-2A workers are processed in Monterrey, and any bottleneck in processing them will cause problems in the U.S., he said.
“We got a pretty big bubble of workers that (we) will get in over the next eight to 12 weeks,” Regelbrugge said. About 100,000 workers need to be processed for H-2A jobs in the U.S. over the next several months, he said.
Employers who are using the H-2A program for the first time may face the longest delays, because they are likely using workers that won’t have interview waivers, Regelbrugge said.
Marsh said visa processing operations for H-2A need to keep pace with demand.
There is no date set yet when consulate operations in Monterrey or other locations in Mexico will return to regular operations.
Growers, Marsh said, are concerned about potential H-2A delays.
“We are hopeful, with the secretary’s commitment, and the administration’s recognition of the importance of making sure that Americans have wholesome and nutritious foods at the grocery store, that we’ll be able to continue to bring workers into the U.S. to do that work,” Marsh said.
Regelbrugge said U.S. growers who use the H-2A program face a high degree of uncertainty in 2020, compounded by the unpredictable nature of the coronavirus outbreak.
“Unless you were alive in 1919 when the Spanish flu epidemic went global, we really don’t have a lot of references for this,” he said.