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The Expanding H-2A Program

October 16, 2017

The H-2A program has since 1987 allowed farmers anticipating too few farm workers to apply for certification to employ guest workers. The H-2 program was created in the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act and modified by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Between the 1950s and the 1990s, most H-2/A workers were Jamaicans who hand cut sugar cane in Florida and picked apples along the eastern seaboard.

The number of H-2A jobs certified fell after the Florida sugar cane harvest was mechanized in response to worker suits alleging underpayment of wages. In FY1985, the US Department of Labor certified 20,700 jobs to be filled by then H-2 workers, including 10,000 in sugar cane. In FY1995, DOL certified 15,100 jobs to be filled with H-2A workers, including 4,100 in tobacco. In FY2016, DOL certified 165,700 jobs, including 15,300 in berries.

DOL certifies farmer need for guest workers, DHS’s USCIS processes farmer applications for guest workers, and the US Department of State issues H-2A visas to foreigners that allow them to enter and work on US farms. These three federal agencies approve over 95 percent of employer applications, but the H-2A program is nonetheless often criticized as inflexible, bureaucratic, and expensive.

Farm employers must satisfy three major requirements to be certified to employ H-2A guest workers. First, they must try and fail to recruit US workers beginning 45 days before the date of need for workers specified by the farmer. Second, farmers must offer H-2A guest workers and out-of-area US workers free and approved housing. Third, farmers must pay the Adverse Effect Wage Rate, which is the average hourly earnings of field and livestock workers reported to USDA by farm employers the previous year. AEWRs for 2017 range from $10.38 an hour in the south to $13.79 in the Plains states, above federal and state minimum wages.

Farmers would like to end these recruitment, housing, and wage requirements, which would have occurred under the Senate’s Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S 744), approved by a 68-32 vote in June 2013 but not considered by the House. Since the 2008-09 recession, farmer requests for H-2A workers have increased, and the number of jobs certified to be filled by H-2A workers could top 200,000 jobs in 2017.

H-2A Jobs Certified and Visas Issued, 2005-16

DOL does not generate estimates of weeks of farm work done by H-2A workers or wages earned by H-2A workers. An analysis of FY12 data, when DOL certified 85,248 jobs to be filled by H-2A workers, found that the 5,400 certified employers offered an average 33 weeks of employment for an average 43 hours a week. If weeks of US employment are multiplied by the number of workers requested by each employer, the average number of weeks drops to 26, reflecting the fact that several hundred employers offer 52-week sheepherder jobs to relatively few workers.

Average employment covered by unemployment insurance on US crop farms is almost 900,000, including 560,000 workers hired directly by crop farmers and 331,000 workers brought to farms by crop support services. If 160,000 H-2A workers are employed an average 26 weeks in FY17, they would be equivalent to 80,000 full-time workers, and H-2A workers would be nine percent of all workers employed on crop farms.

The average AEWR in FY17 was $12.20 an hour or $525 for a 43-hour week. Over 26 weeks, the average H-2A worker would earn $13,650 in the US, and 100,000 H-2A workers would earn $1.36 billion. If 160,000 H-2A workers are in the US in FY17, their total earnings would be over $2 billion.