In a 2018 USDA ERS report, my coauthors and I identified 4 indications that the U.S. farm labor supply is tightening: Increasing reports of farm labor shortages, rising agricultural wages, increased employment through the H-2A agricultural guest worker program, and decreasing supply of farm workers from rural Mexico. Recently proposed legislation may ease the current tightness in the farm labor supply by making it easier for farm employers to hire authorized immigrant farm workers or H-2A non-immigrant guest workers.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, bipartisan legislation proposed in October 2019, would enable unauthorized farm workers and their immediate families to apply for lawful immigration status with a pathway to citizenship, and it would require all farm employers to check the work authorization of new employees using E-Verify. It would also reform the current H-2A program to address many of the concerns held by farm worker advocates and agricultural employers. It would streamline the employer application process by creating a single online portal where employers file all paperwork, it would allow for 3-year visas and issue a limited number of visas for year-round workers, and it would contain additional protections for H-2A employees.
Despite recent growth in H-2A employment, worker advocates and employers identify many weaknesses in the current H-2A program. While it contains numerous regulations to protect the rights of guest workers, many H-2As arrive in the United States to receive wages lower than advertised, fewer hours than promised, sub-standard housing, dangerous working conditions, and sometimes even slave-like conditions. Since H-2As are contracted to work for only one employer, many workers are frightened to report abuse. At the same time, the administrative costs of the program are prohibitively high for many agricultural employers, and employers that need to hire workers year-round (such as dairy farmers) are disqualified.
Even though it is comparatively expensive to hire H-2A workers, many farm employers have turned to the H-2A agricultural guest worker program in recent years as an alternative to hiring seasonal farm workers in the local labor markets. In fiscal year (FY) 2019, 258,000 seasonal farm jobs were filled with H-2A workers, up 6 percent from FY 2018. Reforms to the H-2A program that make it easier for farm employers to apply for H-2A positions and conform with regulations could further increase demand for the program. These reforms may be particularly critical for smaller-scale farm employers who do not have the economies of scale to cover many of the up-front costs associated with H-2A applications.