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COVID-19 Stalls H-2A farm labor

WASHINGTON—A State Department's decision to not process new H-2A visas means a sever agriculture labor shortage this season.

Last year alone, the Department of Labor certified a quarter of a million H2-A requests from US farmers. 

It works this way: when the Labor Department certifies the farm positions, Ag operations are then allowed to recruit workers who complete the visa applications in US consulates. State Department data shows that last year it issued 204-thousand H-2A visas to workers from around the world. While at least 180,000 came from Mexico.

The U.S. State Department will not process new H-2A visas during the COVID-19 crisis and that leaves a chronic need for farm labor this summer. Farm Bureau member Chalmers Carr, a farmer from South Carolina, says the decision means farmers can’t have access to new H-2A workers.

“Luckily for us, we’ve been in the H-2A program for 22 years now. So, everybody this year except for 15 out of our 727 are all returning workers. So, the impact on our operation, if it only remains to new workers, will not be that impactful,” said Carr.

However, If the issue is not resolved, Carr says there could be a production decline.

“Last year, there were 205,000 H-2A workers that were entered into this county. This year, that number was projected somewhere north of 235,000. So, that already means 30,000 were going to be new workers. And then if you add on to that the percentage of workers that don’t return, we could have potentially 50,000 fewer H-2A workers coming into this county. The bottom line is if this isn’t corrected and this virus doesn’t go away, I am concerned that we will see less production than desired,” added Carr.

Farmers say in the meantime, they are taking steps to help workers reduce their risk of getting COVID-19.

“The first thing we’re doing is education and training. And on top of that, we have actually been providing supplies, especially disinfectants to do a proper cleaning. The next thing is we’ve asked for some voluntary restrictions on their own end, no out of town travel unless absolutely necessary, visitors to a minimum. This is a day-to-day changing environment, so we’re just working with them. Luckily, they’ve been very helpful to make sure that they don’t get sick, they also don’t want to get anyone else sick either,” said Carr.

According to the State Department, they are looking at a way to process visa applications during the pandemic and hope to exercise social distancing while renewing the visas. But the Department says that even when they resume visa processing for some workers, even the slightest interruption in the supply of workers has the potential to disrupt food production in the United States.