Fruit and vegetable producers are concerned the COVID-19 crisis will disrupt the flow of H-2A labor and thus put their crops and products in danger.
On March 17, agriculture groups in the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, including Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association BB #:153753, National Potato Council BB #:162582, United Fresh Produce Association BB #:145458, Western Growers Association BB #:144734 and U.S. Apple Association BB #:145473, sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stating their worry that the state department’s decision to suspend regular visa processing in Mexico City could prevent eligible workers from coming to the U.S.
However, the state department told H-2A petitioners it plans to continue to process cases, prioritizing returning H-2A workers who are eligible for an interview waiver.
“As a reminder, ‘returning H-2 workers’ are applicants whose H-2A or H-2B visas have expired in the last twelve months and are now applying for the same visa classification and did not require a waiver the last time they applied for a visa,” the state department said.
This request comes at a time when the number of Americans applying for first-time unemployment benefits rose sharply, primarily due to the virus’ effect on certain sectors of the economy. Service industries, including restaurants, have been hardest hit.
Robert Guenther, senior vice president, public policy for United Fresh, said these newly unemployed workers are free to apply for jobs with growers as the busy harvest season begins.
However, he told industry members in an email that United Fresh will continue to push for government help to make H-2A workers more available:
“The COVID-19 pandemic has had far reaching consequences on the H-2A visa program. According to the federal government, all consulates are still processing H-2A visas in Mexico, prioritizing returning workers who are eligible for interview waivers. Other countries have taken measures to prevent travel to the US including Guatemala, further straining the consular system in Mexico as workers are needed to fill farm labor positions. United Fresh is seeking regulatory relief to expedite the processing of applicants as we believe they are essential workers. According to federal agency officials, the current system will not meet the needs of growers at the current rate. Additionally, United Fresh is seeking greater flexibility for movement of workers in the US, job descriptions, and length of stay under their current H-2A contract.”