The coronavirus pandemic has raised concerns among growers in the agricultural industry about not having enough farmworkers to assist with the year’s harvest.
So the U.S. government is allowing for an extension of visas for agricultural workers already in the country, and officials also authorized consular officers to adjudicate some H-2A visa applicants without in-person interviews.
A State Department spokesperson confirmed through email Wednesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had consulted with Department of Homeland Security officials and had authorized consular officers to waive the visa interview requirement for first-time and returning H-2A applicants who have no apparent ineligibility or potential ineligibility.
“We anticipate the vast majority of otherwise qualified H-2A applicants will now be adjudicated without an interview. All applicants undergo the same security checks, regardless of whether they are interviewed or processed via interview waiver,” the spokesperson said.
Nonimmigrant visas such as the H-2A allow farmers to hire workers from other countries for temporary agricultural work. However, the State Department official said if the screening process determines the worker ineligible for the visa, the applicant must have an in-person interview.
Because of growers' uncertainty about not having enough agricultural workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and DHS announced measures on April 15 to loosen visa restrictions on those already in the country.
As planting season looms, Fred Leitz of Leitz Farms in Sodus Township, Michigan, said the administration's announcement was welcome, as his operation has been using temporary workers for the past five years.
“We get about 178 H-2A workers, and we have 40 or 50 domestic workers that work for us also,” Leitz said.
Leitz Farms grows blueberries, cucumbers, tomatoes and apples.
Leitz told VOA that his company follows social distancing guidelines, wearing masks at all times, especially if there is a need to be close to someone.
“I hope to be here doing something like this next year. I hope that we can make enough money to pay our bills. If we can just do that this year, I'll be happy,” he said.
He also said his workers do not have “real” close contact with others until the job gets to the packing lines, which begin around June 20.
Michael Marsh, president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, said most of the growers were “very pleased” they have an opportunity to have a workforce this year.
“We have workers that are here that would like to transfer onto another contract, and historically, we have not been able to do that because of the structure of the regulations. So, being able to have those people stay longer and transfer more quickly onto a new contract is very welcome news,” Marsh said.
Marsh added that the United States has been dealing with agricultural labor shortages for years, and that the country needs to have temporary farmworkers.
According to the USDA, one of the indicators of this need is the fact that the number of temporary workers requested and approved has increased in the past 14 years from 48,000 positions certified in fiscal year 2005 to nearly 258,000 in fiscal year 2019.
“The average duration of an H-2A certification in FY 2019 was 5.3 months, implying that the 258,000 positions certified represented approximately 114,000 full-year equivalents,” the USDA website shows.
Leitz acknowledged critics who say farmers should not be bringing in temporary workers during times of high unemployment.
“What they don't factor in is when people start going back to work, then I lose the workforce … and I can't plant a crop and not be certain of the workforce I'm going to have,” he said.
Leitz explained that the bulk of his harvest occurs in July, August, September and part of October.
“And all of a sudden, they [unemployed Americans] go back to their full-time jobs and I've got nobody. That's not a very good way to run a business,” he said.
Diane Kurrle, senior vice president at the U.S. Apple Association, told VOA the H-2A programs are the agricultural industry’s “Plan B.”
“Even when I started working with the industry about a dozen years ago, it was much more reliant on a domestic workforce. But there are just fewer and fewer of those people available and willing to take these jobs. And so, throughout the years, we've increasingly relied on H-2A workers,” Kurrle said.
Though streamlining the process to bring workers to the U.S. and temporarily changing restrictions on visas for those already in the country is welcomed, some in the industry worry that it is not enough to address the “stability” of the farm labor force or the health and economic risks to essential farmworkers.
Bruce Goldstein, president of the national advocacy group Farmworker Justice, said in a statement that many farmworkers are reporting they are not receiving adequate information or protection against COVID-19.
“The administration has done nothing to require H-2A program employers to provide safety and health protections or access to sick leave or health care,” Goldstein said.
In Michigan, Leitz said they are being proactive and are doing everything they can to protect temporary workers and those who stay year-round. The company has stocked up on gloves, cleaning supplies and masks.
“We have some housing that if anybody is sick, we can quarantine them there,” Leitz said.