Questions remain about H-2A worker entry, health issues
Farm and ranch groups have said that maintaining an immigrant farm labor workforce is vital to keeping up the supply of food for the American people amid the coronavirus pandemic. But many questions remain today about whether the workers using H-2A visas will be able to come into the country this year and what will happen if they get the virus.
President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced today that the U.S. and Mexican governments had agreed to close the border to all but essential traffic to curb the spread of the virus.
That closure does not affect trade, officials said, but no statement was made about the movement of farmworkers, and American Farm Bureau Federation officials said at a news conference today that they have not gotten any information from the Trump administration about how the border closure will affect the entry of the workers.
On Thursday, the Trump administration declared agriculture and food to be one of the 16 vital industries in the country and said that workers in agriculture and food production should stay on the job even when other workers are being told to stay home to avoid spreading the virus.
Earlier this week, the Trump administration announced that it would stop issuing visas at embassies and consulates including those for the more than 200,000 farmworkers who come in under the H2A visa program. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., led a bipartisan letter from House members asking Pompeo to reverse that policy, and on Thursday the policy appeared to have been softened. But the Wall Street Journal today reported that some embassy personnel were balking at interviewing people who might have the virus. Farm Bureau officials said today on a call to reporters that they were uncertain of the situation.
The administration has said that the farmworkers who already have visas and don’t need interviews can come into the country.
But Chalmers Carr, a peach farmer from Georgia, said on the Farm Bureau call today that he has only about 55% of the workers he will need by harvest time.
“This is a critical time of the year” because farmers are planting, Carr said. But their labor needs will expand as harvest nears. Farmers need about one-third of the workers to plant and the other two-thirds to harvest and process, he said.
“We are very hopeful we can keep the borders open for all of our (workers),” he said. “If we cannot bring them in, there would be a major disruption in the supply of fruits and vegetables.”
Carr said that he needs 727 workers at his peak season beginning about May 10 and would need those workers until September. If the workers can’t enter the country, Carr said, he “would have to make decisions about walking away from crops in the field.”
John Boelts, a produce farmer from Yuma, Ariz., noted on the call that in some cases produce needs to be picked within a matter of days of becoming ripe.
The Agriculture Department and the Department of Labor announced this week that they have identified nearly 20,000 H-2A and H-2B certified positions that have expiring contracts in the coming weeks. “There will be workers leaving these positions who could be available to transfer to a different employer’s labor certification,” USDA and DOL said.
Data on the USDA website includes the number of certified worker positions, the current employer name and contact, attorney/agent name and contact, and the worksite address.
But Carr also noted that farmers may face the issue of outbreaks of the coronavirus in their communities and among their laborers. On the call, American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall said he had not gotten any reports of health care problems in rural areas. But Carr said that at a local clinic whose clientele includes migrant workers, someone tested positive for the virus and the clinic has closed with all personnel quarantined for 14 days. A local hospital is not accepting visitors and told people to come to the hospital only in a dire emergency, he said.
Noting that he houses more than 300 workers in close proximity to one another, Carr asked, “What would we do if one person in a labor camp gets it? This is very concerning as an employer.”
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I ventured out to Target last week to buy a few grocery items and the next day I read in the newspaper that several Target employees tested positive for COVID-19. That’ll teach me to go…