President Donald Trump's plan to suspend immigration into the U.S. will not apply to foreign farm workers, according to three industry sources familiar with the decision.
Trump tweeted on Monday night that he will sign an executive order to temporarily ban immigration to try and stem the spread of coronavirus. The Department of Homeland Security is reportedly still working on the order. Little information is known about its scope or when it will be signed.
The Agriculture Department is working with the White House to publicly clarify that farm workers will be exempt, according to a lobbyist.
An ongoing labor shortage has led to the agriculture industry increasingly relying on the H-2A guest worker program to fill empty jobs on farming operations. In 2019, the Department of Labor certified more than 250,000 H-2A worker visas, a 10 percent increase from the year before. For farmers to hire seasonal workers from other countries, they must prove that the jobs could not be filled by domestic workers.
In recent weeks, the Trump administration has eased requirements for farmers to use the H-2A program as the pandemic has disrupted the labor supply. The federal government waived in-person interviews for workers looking to get hired as embassies have shut down. Farmers can also hire foreign workers currently in the U.S., and the three-year time limit for workers has been temporarily lifted.
From farm workers to grocery store employees, the agriculture industry has continued running throughout the outbreak. Labor unions representing farm workers say they should be better protected and be provided hazard pay, free testing and coverage for health care costs. Farm laborers work and often live in close conditions, putting them at high risk of contracting the virus.
Employers have long complained that it's too expensive to employ these workers and lobbied the government to lower wages. The Department of Labor determines how much H-2A workers are paid and sets new rates every year. In 2020, foreign farm workers must be paid at least $14.77 in California and $11.71 in Florida, two major participants in the program.