Industry groups, farmworker advocates split on proposed changes to H-2A program

Mathew Burciaga
Santa Maria Times, Calif.

Industry groups and farmworker advocates are split over a proposal to modify the federal H-2A visa program, changes they say will affect farmers and field workers across California and on the Central Coast.

Released July 15 by the U.S. Department of Labor, officials said the proposed changes would “streamline and simplify” the application process, lift some regulatory burdens for employers, and change the way wages are calculated for the nation’s domestic field workers and 242,762 foreign laborers.

Though many organizations are still reviewing the nearly 500-page document, industry groups representing growers and other agricultural producers welcomed the Trump administration’s announcement. Several plan to submit feedback during the administration’s 60-day public comment period, which could close in mid- to late September.

“We appreciate the emphasis the Administration has placed on resolving agriculture’s ongoing labor challenges, and their efforts to incorporate feedback from agricultural employers into the proposed H-2A reforms,” said Tom Nassif, president and CEO of the Western Growers Association, a trade group that represents local and regional family farmers in California and other western states.

In a statement, Nassif not only encouraged the “implementation of these important modernizations” but called on Congress to codify the changes as a law to stop “regulatory progress [from being] reversed by ensuing administrations.”

California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson said he was “encouraged by the administration’s efforts to improve the H-2A system.” While the group is still analyzing the full proposal, Johansson said the changes could provide a solution to the state’s farm labor issues by increasing farmer participation.

In a 2019 survey of 1,071 farmers conducted by the Farm Bureau, 56% of those surveyed reported that they were unable to hire all the employees they needed for production at some point over the last five years. Some farmers had to abandon crops or decrease production due to a lack of labor, according to the survey results, and 86% said they raised wages in efforts to hire enough people.

Only 6% of those surveyed reported enrolling in the H-2A program. Those who did not said the program and its regulations made it impractical for small growers.

Johansson called H-2A reform “one piece of the puzzle” and urged Congress to pursue wider action on the nation’s immigration laws.

“Ultimately, immigration laws need to accommodate employees and their immediate family members who are in the country now, plus allow future employees to enter the U.S. and move from farm to farm for employment,” he said. “We will continue to pursue that goal with Congress and the administration.”

Concerns from local advocates

California employed 18,908 agricultural workers through the H-2A program — trailing Georgia, Florida, Washington and North Carolina as the state with the fifth-highest number of foreign guest workers — during the 2018 fiscal year, according to data published by the Office of Foreign Labor Certification, the division tasked with overseeing the program. While the number of H-2A visas is not capped by the government, U.S. employers must demonstrate that foreign employment will not negatively affect wages and working conditions for the domestic labor force.

To do that, employers are required to pay an “adverse effect wage rate,” a type of minimum wage that must be offered to domestic and foreign workers, to ensure salaries for U.S. workers are not undercut by the guest worker program. The rate is calculated using an average for all field and livestock workers in a certain geographic area, and offered as base pay for H-2A employees.

The new rule would allow the Labor Department to create separate wage rates based on occupations, changes that could increase the wages for specialized workers — first-line supervisors, agricultural and food science technicians, or agricultural managers like farmers or ranchers — while decreasing salaries for general field laborers.

“This proposal would lower the minimum wage protections for most H-2A workers, which will also hurt local farmworkers by lowering wage standards throughout the ag industry,” said Lucas Zucker, policy and communications director for Ventura-based Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE). “If the basic wage standard for H-2A is lowered, it keeps wages low for all farmworkers in the Central Coast. Farmworker families who live here need higher wages to make ends meet with rising rents.”

Agricultural workers on the Central Coast and across California received $13.18 an hour in 2018, a rate that would fall or rise under the department’s proposal. The 34 farmworkers hired to tend to cattle or livestock, 25 unspecified agricultural workers, first-line supervisor and agricultural equipment operator hired in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties through the H-2A program would receive hourly raises — ranging from $0.35 to $8.93 — under the proposed changes.

Those occupations do not represent the majority of local workers hired on H-2A visas. In 2018, 3,843 field laborers were hired by agricultural producers to harvest strawberries, lettuce and other labor-intensive row crops. Wages for both domestic and foreign field laborers would fall to $12.92 per hour under the proposal, a change Zucker said would hurt local farmworkers by further reducing their incomes.

“Making H-2A wages cheaper makes it more profitable to shift from long-term relationships between growers and local farmworkers and towards temporary contract workers,” Zucker said. “Our community is stronger when farmworkers live here, establish roots and raise families here, and spend their money back in our local economy.”

California’s 2019 wage rate currently sits at $13.92 per hour, almost $2 more per hour than the state minimum wage. The Labor Department did not include a proposed 2019 wage rate in their plan.