The Department of Homeland Security announced temporary rule changes to H-2A worker regulations which will allow companies to employ temporary foreign farmworkers quicker and longer than previously possible.
H-2A workers can now stay in the U.S. longer than the federally-regulated three years, and organizations that have applied for H-2A worker permits can now begin to employ the workers before their application is approved, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday.
The temporary change came as a relief to ag industry advocates, while worker advocates say enough has not been done to support the workers during this pandemic.
This rule will "help U.S. agricultural employers avoid disruptions in lawful agricultural-related employment, protect the nation’s food supply chain, and lessen impacts from the coronavirus (COVID-19) public health emergency," the announcement read. "These temporary flexibilities will not weaken or eliminate protections for U.S. workers."
Under the temporary rule, an H-2A petitioning employer with a valid temporary labor certification can start employing certain foreign workers who are currently in H-2A status in the U.S. immediately after the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) receives their petition.
Workers can't begin earlier than the start date of employment listed on the application. Additionally, the rule applies only to H-2A workers already in the U.S. with valid H-2A status.
Monterey County Farm Bureau Executive Director Norm Groot applauded the changes.
"Anything to improve the system is welcome news," he said via text.
The USDA encouraged agricultural employers to use this process if they are worried about their ability to bring in temporary workers.
"This Administration has determined that continued agricultural employment, currently threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic, is vital to maintaining and securing the country’s critical food supply chain," stated Chad Wolf, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security.
The temporary final rule is effective immediately upon publication in the Federal Register. If the new petition is approved, the H-2A worker will be able to stay in the United States for a period of time not to exceed the validity period of the Temporary Labor Certification.
"USDA welcomes these additional flexibilities provided by the Department of Homeland Security today," said Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. "Providing flexibility for H-2A employers to utilize H-2A workers that are currently in the United States is critically important as we continue to see travel and border restrictions as a result of COVID-19."
But farmworker advocacy groups Farmworker Justice and United Farm Workers said the temporary changes only helped employers, and ignored realities H-2A workers are facing.
“Allowing employers more flexibility in using H-2A workers while the Administration does nothing to ensure the health and safety of H-2A workers or other farmworkers is unconscionable,” said Bruce Goldstein, President of Farmworker Justice. "The Administration has done nothing to require H-2A program employers to provide safety and health protections or access to sick leave or health care, even as it issues several policy changes that grant flexibility to agricultural employers, who will be receiving $9.5 billion in financial support."
Others agreed with Goldstein.
"The proposed Trump H-2A rules appear to do nothing to solve the actual problems of COVID-19," said Leydy Rangel, spokesperson for United Farm Workers Foundation. "The best way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is to make sure all farm workers diagnosed or exposed to someone diagnosed with coronavirus have paid sick leave. Loosening rules for workers from outside the United States only helps spread the global pandemic."
These new regulations may not be so temporary.
DHS added that it will issue a new temporary final rule in the Federal Register to amend the termination date of these new procedures should "DHS determine that circumstances demonstrate a continued need for the temporary changes to the H-2A regulations."
Source: The Californian