The effects of the COVID-19 virus is already starting to impact the nation’s agriculture sector. As of Wednesday, the State Department ruled that new H-2A guest worker applications will not be processed. However, returning seasonal workers will be able to enter the U.S.
“Renewal workers are the ones that are getting priority in all this,” said Katie Vargas, operational manager with Great Lakes Ag Labor Services (GLALS). “The reason being is that renewal workers do not need an in-person interview, so the amount of person-to-person contact is very minimal in that type of setup.”
The majority of Michigan’s H-2A workers come from Mexico, one of the countries this restriction applies. Currently, GLALS has 337 ag workers scheduled for consulate appointments, and roughly 240 of those are renewals.
“We’ve seen a really good percentage of returning workers to the same farm year after year and the number of new workers is relatively low,” said Vargas. “It still makes up a significant portion that we need to pay attention to.”
With some businesses shutting their doors for the foreseeable future leaving employees with no jobs, perhaps this is an opportunity to have a domestic farm workforce.
“What the employers are always keeping in mind in all this is that they need a reliable workforce,” said Vargas. “The jobs aren’t going to wait if people don’t show up one day and then come another day. They need commitment and reliability.”
Some crops can be harvested mechanically, but there are more that need to be harvested by hand like apples, tomatoes, peppers and grapes. Although harvest for some crops is weeks and months away, Vargas says there’s still a need for farm workers now since agriculture is Michigan’s second largest industry.
“[They are] very time-sensitive and very important jobs,” she said. “If we don’t do the jobs in the next week, we won’t have a crop to harvest. Whether it’s planting vegetables, pruning vineyards, all those things need to be done for the employers to be able to have a crop. If we lose specific windows on those, it could be very damaging.”
On Thursday, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced a partnership between the USDA and Department of Labor to “help facilitate the identification of foreign and domestic workers that may be available and eligible to transfer to other U.S. agricultural sector employers to fulfill critical workforce needs within the U.S. under existing regulatory authority during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“Ensuring minimal disruption for our agricultural workforce during these uncertain times is a top priority for this administration,” Secretary Perdue said. “President Trump knows that these workers are critical to maintaining our food supply and our farmers and ranchers are counting on their ability to work. We will continue to work to make sure our supply chain is impacted as minimally as possible.”