March 25, 2020 - By Kevin Hecteman - The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to worsen the chronic shortage of employees on California farms and ranches, at a time when agriculture has been classified as "critical infrastructure" by state and federal governments.
In response to the pandemic, the U.S. State Department announced last week it was suspending processing of new, nonemergency visa applications. That includes agricultural guestworkers coming to the U.S. on H-2A visas. The California Farm Bureau Federation and other agricultural groups have sought clarification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the State Department and the White House, according to Sara Neagu-Reed, CFBF associate director of federal policy, who has been engaged in seeking a solution.
Neagu-Reed said consulates in Tijuana and Monterrey, Mexico, intend to continue H-2A visa processing. Modifications include waiving in-person interviews for returning H-2A employees whose visas have expired in the past 12 months, are applying for the same visa classification and did not require a waiver last time. The Tijuana and Monterrey consulates have said that for now they will not be processing first-time H-2A applicants, Neagu-Reed added.
Guadalupe Sandoval, managing director of the California Farm Labor Contractors Association, said the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Foreign Labor Certification continues to process applications, but with some consulates closing, getting people cleared to come to the U.S. may be tricky. There are nine consulates and consular agencies in Mexico, according to the State Department.
"You can process all of the rest of your application," Sandoval said. "You just can't get that final step done at this point."
In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked that H-2A visas be considered "essential" and receive prioritized processing.
"Interrupting the issuance of H-2A visas—particularly for returning workers who have no inadmissability concern—harms our national interests and may cause an interruption to our food supply in the midst of a global pandemic," Feinstein wrote.
In a separate letter to Pompeo, Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Monterey, said suspending routine nonimmigrant visa processing "poses a serious and significant barrier to ensuring our nation's food security in these trying times."
On Friday, President Donald Trump announced the U.S.-Mexico border would be closed to nonessential traffic. People traveling to the U.S. for work, including in agriculture, will be counted as essential travel and allowed across, as will trucks moving agricultural products and other goods between the two nations.
Bryan Little, CFBF director of employment policy and chief operating officer of CFBF affiliate Farm Employers Labor Service, said H-2A visa holders accounted for 3% of the agricultural labor force in California last year, but said the State Department decision would be disruptive.
"One problem here is the timing of it," Little said. "People are ramping up their seasons right now. They have needs for people now to be able to perform certain jobs that are critical early in the season."
Sandoval said berry growers are the main employers of H-2A visa holders in California, and strawberry harvest is set to increase next month. He said he'd spoken to one farmer looking to bring in a group of H-2A employees from Florida whose contract is running out.
According to the USDA, there are some 20,000 H-2A and H-2B workers with expiring contracts who may be able to move to new employers. The USDA H-2A webpage at www.farmers.gov/manage/H2A has more information about where these workers are at present and how to make arrangements.
Reducing availability of H-2A employees in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when some farm employees may be off taking care of children whose schools are closed or may be off sick themselves, could create a "perfect storm" for employers trying to keep their businesses open, Little said.
"A lot of people who expected to be in the position of being able to rely on the vanguard of their workforce coming from the H-2A program in the early part of the season are having the rug jerked out from under them right now," he added.
Paid sick leave provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, signed into law last week, will affect agricultural operations with between 50 and 499 employees.
The leave is intended for people who have to self-isolate because they have the virus or have symptoms and need a diagnosis; have been ordered by a medical professional to stay away from work; who must care for a sick family member or take care of children whose schools have closed. Such employees are eligible for two weeks' pay under the act.
The statewide stay-at-home order issued last week by Gov. Gavin Newsom allows people to leave only for essential trips—such as to the grocery store—or for work in a number of essential lines of work, including agriculture.
As people who work in a sector identified as critical, CFBF President Jamie Johansson said farmers, ranchers and people working in agricultural businesses "recognize our special responsibility to maintain normal work schedules."
"We encourage local, state and federal agencies to interpret the guidelines as broadly as practicable, to be sure everyone in agriculture can stay on the job, producing food and farm products during this crisis," Johansson said.
He noted that CFBF is working to ensure employers have the latest safety information. FELS maintains a page with information about COVID-19 at www.fels.net.
In addition, the Monterey County Farm Bureau has posted guidance on its website for employers to train employees in safe working habits in the age of social distancing, which may be found at montereycfb.com.
"Based on the questions we've been receiving from farmers, we know they're being diligent in having employees engage in sanitary practices," Johansson said. "That's already a high priority for reasons both of food safety and employee health. Farmers take a number of steps on a regular basis to protect themselves, their employees, their families and their crops."
(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Reprinted with permission: California Farm Bureau Federation