Every year, thousands of workers enter the U.S. through the H-2A program to fill temporary agricultural jobs. The majority of these workers come from Mexico and Central America in hopes of making enough income to support their families back home. The minimum wage pay they receive for their back-bending labor is a significant increase from what they would receive for similar work in their home countries. For instance, in Mexico, tractor drivers can make as little as fifty pesos per workday, which, at the current exchange rate, is less than three dollars. For that reason, even with the hard work required, receiving an H-2A visa can be a dream come true for workers.
The novel coronavirus has put many of these dreams on hold. Many of the workers’ countries are being ravaged by COVID-19 outbreaks. Brazil alone has surpassed one million cases. Similarly, Mexico, Peru, and Chile have each reported over 100,000 confirmed cases. Smaller countries, like El Salvador and Guatemala, even though little testing has been done, have surpassed a thousand cases. The pandemic, coupled with poor government intervention, has taken its toll on Latin America as deaths continue to surge.
To decrease the further spread of COVID-19 into the U.S., the U.S. government placed restrictions on visa interviews. While growers were told that new H-2A applications would not be processed, the Department of Homeland Security issued a temporary final rule to ease concerns. The rule allows employers with a valid temporary labor certification to employ certain foreigners who are currently in the United States in valid H-2A status immediately after USCIS receives the H-2A petition, and extends the maximum period of stay of these workers beyond the three-year maximum.
Despite the temporary order, U.S. farmers who rely on H-2A workers remain concerned over the impact that the restrictions will have on their crops, considering that farm workers are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Farmworkers tend to live in crowded quarters and may not be able to socially distance in the fields or packing spaces, even if their employers wish to reduce risk. If these farm workers became infected, like those in the meat packing industry, it will have a profoundly chilling effect on the market.
The U.S. is in constant need of farm workers to grow, pick, and package the vast and diverse produce farmed in the country. For example, California produces over 400 different crops. In season now are apricots, broccoli, corn, berries, and other produce. Figs, cherries, grapefruit, grapes, and tomatoes follow soon after. In Florida, avocados, carambola, guava, and other produce are all ready to be picked for next season. The U.S. requires farmworkers to fill these positions in order to keep seasonal produce available. Can you imagine a summer without cherries?
Farmworkers are doing essential work that cannot be done from home. The U.S. cannot risk being without a steady stream of H-2A applicants filling these positions. When it comes to getting food on the table, H-2A workers are essential and indispensable. Employers need to do their best to protect workers by offering PPE and adopting other measures to ensure the health and safety of their employees. Our food supply depends on them.