GFB works to secure needed farm workers during COVID-19
Since March 17, Georgia Farm Bureau (GFB) has been working closely with Georgia’s U.S. Congressional delegation, USDA officials, American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and other ag allies to avoid labor shortages caused by changes in how H-2A workers are processed due to the COVID-19 response.
The U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Mexico announced March 16 an indefinite suspension of routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa services beginning March 18 in response to COVID-19. GFB immediately began receiving calls from producers who were concerned about the potential impact this decision could have on their farms.
On the evening of March 26, the U.S. State Department annnounced it was revising its restrictions on the processing of visa applications submitted by farm workers in Mexico after hearing concerns that the restrictions would lead to a farm worker shortage in the U.S. AFBF reported March 27 that U.S. consular officers can now waive the visa in-person interview requirement for eligible first-time and returning H-2A and H-2B applicants, making more workers in the H-2 program available while prioritizing public health.
GFB is pleased to report that the messages from our farmer-members have been well received and the issue is being taken seriously by policymakers. On March 19, Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler along with Reps. Rick Allen, Sanford Bishop, Buddy Carter, Doug Collins, Tom Graves, Jody Hice, Austin Scott and Rob Woodall joined other U.S. senators and representatives from across the country in sending a bipartisan, bicameral letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf and U.S. Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia.
In their letter, the legislators asked the agencies to take the following actions to support American farmers:
• Use all existing available authorities to provide maximum flexibility to consulate staff in the processing of H-2A visa applicants, while implementing protocols to protect public health.
• Identify any current legal or logistical hurdles that may prevent U.S. agencies from implementing additional flexibilities, such as developing a separate screening process or remote interviews, in processing H-2A visa applicants.
• Provide an estimation of any costs associated with implementing any of the aforementioned actions.
• Provide data on the number of H-2A petition beneficiaries nationwide and by state that are eligible for an interview waiver and will not be affected by these processing changes.
"With all that has happened in agriculture in recent years—from extreme weather events to tariffs and historically low commodity prices—labor has remained one of the top issues for many Georgia farmers, and news that the coronavirus response could make it even more challenging for our farmers to find workers is disheartening,” said GFB President Gerald Long. “This is why we appreciate the support we’ve received from Georgia’s Congressional delegation in asking the appropriate federal agencies to find a solution that still protects public health.”
On March 19, the USDA and U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced a partnership between the two agencies to facilitate the identification of existing foreign and domestic workers who may be available and eligible to transfer to other U.S. agricultural sector employers to fill critical workforce needs during the COVID-19 response.
The USDA and DOL have identified nearly 20,000 H-2A and H-2B certified positions that have contracts expiring in the coming weeks. There will be workers leaving these positions who could be available to transfer to a different employer’s labor certification.
Visit www.farmers.gov/manage/h2a to access information about current H-2A workers who could be available to transfer to ag work. This date includes the number of certified worker positions, the current employer name and contact, attorney/agent name and contact, and the worksite address. This information will be a resource to H-2A employers whose workforce has been delayed because of travel restrictions or visa processing limitations. This webpage also includes information about the status of U.S. embassies in other countries from which H-2A ag workers come from including: Guatemala, Jamaica, Peru and South Africa.
Employers should note that all statutory and regulatory requirements continue to apply. Employers are encouraged to monitor www.travel.state.gov for the latest information and should monitor the relevant Embassy/Consular websites for specific operational information.
GFB President Long praised the USDA and DOL following the agencies’ announcement that they would share information to assist H-2A employers.
“We’ve worked with our House and Senate delegation in Washington to advance ideas just like this, and we are pleased to see the USDA and Department of Labor taking action to help ensure that Georgia farmers are able to harvest their crops and get them on grocery store shelves for American consumers during this pandemic,” Long said.
GFB encourages Georgia farmers to continue the important work of feeding and clothing our nation as we work with federal officials, our congressional delegation, and allied industry groups to address this challenge.
If you have any questions, concerns, or input for consideration please contact the GFB Public Policy Department at firstname.lastname@example.org or the USDA at email@example.com .