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Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

The COVID-19 Pandemic Could Mean Fewer Farmworkers

The recruitment of farmworkers needed to work across the U.S. is facing far more difficulties due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Like other sectors, the COVID-19 crisis affects agriculture. Let’s start with the recruitment of farmworkers needed to staff the 2 million farms across the U.S. As the data suggested the number of coronavirus infections would surge, on March 18, the State Department temporarily suspended immigrant visa processing services in Mexico as a response to the worsening pandemic. But six days later, the department suddenly announced revisions for processing visa applications.

Confusion reigns over how workers can get visas to work on U.S. farms

The change in approach toward processing visa applications by Mexican farmworkers came over concerns that the restrictions would lead to a shortage of farmworkers in the U.S. The State Department waived the visa interview requirement for the H-2A application process, which allows U.S. employers to bring foreign nationals into the country to fill temporary jobs in the agricultural sector.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo authorized consular officers to expand the categories of all H-2 visa applicants whose applications can be processed without an in-person interview. As of press time, the in-person interview requirement can be waived for both first-time and returning H-2A applicants, as well as H-2B applicants, or temporary foreign workers not employed in agriculture. “We anticipate the vast majority of otherwise qualified H-2 applicants will now be adjudicated without an interview,” the State Department stated in an announcement.

The influential American Farm Bureau Federation commended the revisions. “We applaud the administration for recognizing the contributions H-2A and H-2B workers make on farms across this country to ensure Americans have access to healthy, affordable food,” said American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall.

Nevertheless, farmers across the U.S. face daunting labor challenges in the coming months.

Fewer farmworkers expected despite State Department revisions

The H-2 program is an important part of U.S. agriculture, or as the State Department boldly describes it, “The H-2 program is essential to the economy and food security of the United States.” The H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program provides a legal way for immigrants to perform farm labor on a temporary basis. It is the only visa program that brings in farmworkers to temporarily work in the U.S. Under the program, immigrants can perform farm work for up to 10 months. The amount of H-2A positions requested and approved increased five-fold from 48,000 positions in 2005 to almost 243,000 in 2018.

Despite the revisions announced by the State Department, there is still ongoing confusion about U.S. visas. Reuters reported that because of the confusion, far fewer workers have been arriving in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, approximately 125 miles from the U.S. border and thereby a traditional stop for workers seeking these H-2A visas. If confusion about visa rules continues, this could mean fewer farmworkers come harvest time.

A continued decrease in the number of farmworkers means that farmers will face more challenges in harvesting crops to meet U.S. consumers’ demand. A report by the bipartisan immigration advocacy group New American Economy estimated that U.S. farmers would have produced $3.1 billion more in fresh fruits and vegetables a year by 2014 if they had more access to legal immigrant farm labor.

On that point, California serves as a solid example. California’s farmers grow over a third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of the nation’s fruits and nuts. Most farmworkers in California are from Mexico. That means the nation could end up with less fresh fruits, nuts, and vegetables if there are fewer farmworkers from Mexico in California, which also means fewer exports of coveted crops like pistachios and almonds.

Could native-born American workers fill the gap?

Would American workers fill the gap? The answer is maybe. New American Economy looked at North Carolina in 2011, which back then had 6,500 open farm jobs in the state at the start of the season. Only 265 American workers applied, and only seven of them lasted the harvest season. However, a recent National Agricultural Workers survey found that a quarter of crop workers were born in the U.S. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) thinks the data by the NAW Survey indicates that some unemployed U.S.-born workers, if given the opportunity and paid a fair wage, could be recruited to work within the agriculture sector.

Native-born American workers are not the only option to harvest the nation’s crops. Many immigrants that have worked in service industries across the U.S. have lost their jobs due to COVID-19. As a report in Quartz recently made clear, non-citizens working in the U.S. are far more vulnerable than those who have legal citizenship: They make almost 40 percent less than U.S.-born or -naturalized workers, 30 percent lack health insurance, and the vast majority of them will not benefit from the federal government’s $2 trillion omnibus economic relief package.

And even if they had legal status, the complexities of the federal government’s economic relief package means that many of these workers would not be eligible for assistance anyway, according to a recent EPI survey.

In any event, convincing U.S. citizens to work on farms will be a tall order, especially with reports circulating that the White House and U.S. Department of Agriculture are exploring ways to actually lower the wages of foreign guest workers. Considering that, in any given year, only about 25 to 29 percent of U.S. farmworkers are U.S. citizens, the fact that there’s any talk about lowering wages gives all workers less incentive to pursue a job Americans have repeatedly made clear they don’t want to do.

Legalities aside, the day-to-day reality for many farmworkers means that whether they work in orchards, on farms or within meatpacking plants, the approximately 1 million farmworkers that are the foundation of the U.S. food supply are at risk as they aren’t necessarily “sheltering in place,” unlike the majority of U.S. citizens.

“As the virus spreads, many farmworkers are living and working in conditions that put their health particularly at risk,” CNN's Catherine E. Shoichet recently observed. “And if outbreaks hit farmworker communities hard, they say, that could put the nation's food supply at risk, too.”

Image credit: Gregory Hayes/Unsplash

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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