USDA is proposing revisions to the H-2A Farm Worker program to help ensure American farmers of a stable, legal workforce at harvest time while also providing new protections to U.S. workers by assuring them wider opportunities to learn about farm labor jobs that are available in their area.
"Because farmers are tied to the land and the natural cycles of growth and harvest, their need for labor is urgent and non-negotiable," says Deputy Ag Secretary Chuck Conner. "This is particularly true of the fruit and vegetable growers who employ so many of our farm workers. A crop that rots in the field-for want of enough hands to pick it-can put a farmer out of business pretty fast."
According to Conner, bureaucratic delays can keep farmers who participate in the H-2A program from having a workforce when they need it. He says estimates put the agriculture work at 1.2 million during the seasonal peak of July.
"But last year, agricultural employers hired only about 75,000 farm workers through the H-2A program. We believe between 50 and 70 percent of the agricultural work force is in the country illegally," Conner says. "That translates into between 600,000 and 800,000 people. At the upper end of that range, the H-2A program is legalizing fewer than 10% of eligible workers. And that is simply not acceptable."
USDA will be using data from the Department of Labor's Occupations Employment Survey to bring H-2A wage rates much closer to actual prevailing rates. Conner says he believes farmers will welcome the new approach to certifying foreign workers.
"What we are offering them is an opportunity to get their hiring back inside the law-without compromising their business needs," Conner says. "And we are offering farm workers who are now illegal the chance to get inside the law as well and take advantage of the protections and certainty it allows. I believe both groups have a great deal to gain here and will seize this opportunity. The nation as a whole will benefit when they do."