DOL proposes streamlining of H-2A guest-worker program

crawfish grading

Workers use a machine designed for vegetable packinghouses to size and grade crawfish — photo by Vicky Boyd

The U.S. Department of Labor has published a Federal Register notice that it plans to start rulemaking to amend the agricultural guest-worker program to streamline the application process.

Farmers who use the H-2A program have long complained of the cumbersome and lengthy application process. Several producers in South Louisiana use it to obtain workers for the crawfishing season.

For growers of some other perishable crops, it takes so long to gain approval that their crops are long past harvest by the time they receive the OK.

The DOL’s action drew praise from several agricultural groups, including the California Farm Bureau Federation.

“We’re encouraged by the administration’s efforts to improve the H2-A system,” CFBF President Jamie Johansson said in a statement. “We continue to analyze the full proposal, but our initial reading shows that it would streamline certain aspects of the program and expand it to include additional forms of agriculture, such as reforestation work.”

More California farmers have begun using the H2-A program, he said, but added that it has generally not been flexible enough for many of the state’s crops and commodities.

“When we asked Farm Bureau members earlier this year to tell us how they are addressing employee shortages, only 6% of the farmers who responded to our survey said they were using H2-A,” Johansson said. “Changes proposed by the administration may increase that proportion, but farmers also need wider improvement to immigration laws that can only be addressed through congressional action.”

According to the proposal, the reforms would:

• Streamline the H2-A application process by mandating electronic filing of job orders and applications with the use of digital signatures.

• Provide employers with and the option of staggering the entry of H2-A workers on a single application;

• Strengthen protections for U.S. and foreign workers by enhancing standards applicable to rental housing and public accommodations.

• Strengthen surety bond requirements.

• Expand the department’s authority to use enforcement tools like program debarment for substantial violations of program rules.

• Update the methods used to determine the adverse effect wage rates and prevailing wages to ensure U.S. workers similarly employed are not adversely impacted.

• Expand access to the H2-A program by revising the definition of agricultural labor or services to include employers engaged in reforestation and pine straw activities.

The full 489-page H2-A proposal can be viewed here.