H-2A waivers ease worries of fruit and veggie growers

In response to an urgent letter sent March 17 by agricultural leaders to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the United States is now extending visa waivers to agricultural workers needed in U.S. orchards, fields and farms. Those workers have been declared essential, much to the relief of growers.

The letter was sent one day before the U.S. embassy in Mexico City announced it was suspending all visa applications for cross-border visits, except emergencies in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The letter was sent by the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, which has lobbied for immigration reform for decades.

“The timing was a particular worry,” said Justin Darrisse, vice president of communications at the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. Different crops have different timetables and some migrant labor is needed now for planting.  For many row crops and tree crops, the critical season for migrant and guest labor is the harvest season.

The letter said, “As you know, many sectors within the agriculture industry are highly labor-intensive and especially dependent upon foreign labor, including the H-2A agricultural visa program, and other non-immigrant agricultural worker visas to meet labor needs. Like much of agriculture, the production for many of our crops is set to begin this month. A significant number of farmers have applications currently pending, or will soon be filed, with appointments at U.S. consulates scheduled beginning next week.”

It was signed by 13 farm organizations, including American Farm Bureau Federation, National Council of Agricultural Employers, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and National Farmers Union.

Working with Pompeo and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, agricultural interests got the declaration and waivers in place. All visa applicants are being tested for exposure to the coronavirus, and farms and orchards are putting in place social distancing protocols and other protections for workers and consumers. Those restrictions might last well into harvest season, said Darisse.

The Department of Homeland Security with support of the USDA on April 15 announced a temporary final rule to change certain H-2A regulations. An H-2A petitioner with a valid temporary labor certification who is concerned that workers will be unable to enter the country due to travel restrictions can start employing certain foreign workers who are current in H-2A status immediately after the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services receives the petition but no earlier than the start date of employment listed on the petition. To take advantage of this time-limited change in regulatory requirements, the H-2A worker seeking to change employers already be in the U.S. and in valid H-2A The change also allows workers temporarily to stay beyond the three-year maximum allowable period.

More relief proposed

But the labor crunch is only one of the challenges of the coronavirus for produce growers and shippers. On April 7, the United Fresh Produce Association and a number of industry partners urged Congress to support a Produce Market Stabilization Program for the fresh produce sector.

The lockdown measures to control the spread of coronavirus have resulted in the shutdown of many restaurants and other customers of fresh produce, many of whom might not survive the shutdown.

“Over a five-day period, 30 million school lunches, 15 million school breakfasts, and 100 million meals at restaurants EVERY DAY stopped being served,” according to the UFPA on its website.  “The entire fresh produce industry supply chain is reeling from this sudden and immediate shut down of an estimated 40% of all produce consumed in America.” The industry estimates that the sudden change has resulted in $5 billion worth of losses to produce growers, shippers, and wholesalers.

Lost sales won’t be easily made up

“Looking forward, the industry is experiencing as much as $1 billion a week in lost sales that simply cannot be converted fully to a changing retail market. The impact of these losses has led to thousands of jobs lost, and the immediate potential of bankruptcies that will disrupt the produce supply chain for years to come.”

“Since the beginning of this crisis, our association has worked to help our industry keep produce moving to consumers,” said Michael Muzyk, president of Baldor Specialty Foods and chairman of United Fresh. “And we’ve worked to help our members actually survive following the devastating financial impact of this crisis. Today is an important day on a path toward some stability for our industry to be able to serve consumers when we’re finally past this terrible time.”

“There is a long road still ahead,” said United Fresh President and CEO Tom Stenzel. “But this is a critical step—our industry has come together to support a consensus proposal to USDA, and Congress has come together—The first step was encouraging Congress to pass the CARES Act devoting $2 trillion to the economy, and some $9.5 billion specifically carved out for fruits and vegetables, livestock, dairy and local food systems. Now comes this urgent proposal with a roadmap of how USDA can support our industry immediately.

In addition, 108 members of Congress have sent a letter to Perdue urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support immediate relief.

“Next will come deep discussions and analysis within USDA in channeling resources to multiple interests. And eventually, we believe there will have to be continuing additional financial relief from Congress if our economy is going to be able to pull out of this crisis and grow again,” Stenzel said.

David Murray can be reached at [email protected]

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