Proposals to improve the H-2A visa agricultural guestworker program will soon be forthcoming, four U.S. cabinet departments have announced.
The plan is to “substantially reduce” the program’s complexity while giving farmers incentives to use the E-verify system — electronic verification of employment eligibility — to ensure workers are authorized to work in the U.S., the departments of Labor, Agriculture, State and Homeland Security said in a joint news release on May 24.
“The Trump Administration is committed to modernizing the H-2A-visa program rules in a way that is responsive to stakeholder concerns and that deepens our confidence in the program as a source of legal and verified labor for agriculture — while also reinforcing the program’s strong employment and wage protections for the American workforce,” the release states.
Changes were not specified.
“It’s good news. We appreciate the fact the administration has taken a look at the program and thinks there needs to be changes,” said Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers.
The rule-making process takes time with supporting evidence to be collected and periods for public comment. But the administration intends to move so that implementation maybe as early as the 2020 growing season, Marsh said.
Changes such as making the program non-seasonal to include year-round dairy workers requires legislation, but USDA will likely look at wages, he said.
Growers often view H-2A wages as too high. They also must pay to recruit, transport and house H-2A workers.
Marsh said he’s working to translate total costs it into an hourly rate.
U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., who represents a district with many tree fruit growers using H-2A workers, said the announcement shows “the Trump administration has farmers’ backs.” Labor is scarce and means lost revenue for growers, he said.
Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, Irvine, Calif., said any effort to simplify H-2A is welcomed and hopes it makes the program more usable by fresh produce growers.
Costs of unnecessary recruitment methods should be reduced, the scope and accuracy of prevailing wage surveys should be improved, greater movement of workers to respond to production needs should be allowed, seasonality needs to be clarified and housing and transportation approvals should be streamlined, Nassif said.
Administrative improvements undertaken by one administration are undone by the next, so real reform needs to be legislation, he said.
“Any implication that necessary reforms would be limited to those who use E-verify is concerning,” Nassif said.
Marsh said he wants to know what kind of incentives the administration is planning to get people to voluntarily use E-verify.
Mandatory E-verify without work authorization would result in an “immediate huge shortfall of labor,” and become “a national worker disaster,” he said.
Faster and more lasting H-2A visa program changes could be made through legislation. But a replacement H-2C program proposed in HR 4760, sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., is opposed by Western Growers and other groups. It caps the number of visas and requires workers in the U.S. illegally to return to their country of origin and apply to re-enter. Both of those are viewed as unworkable.
HR 4760 so far does not have enough votes to clear the House and likely would find the Senate even more challenging, Marsh said.