Farmworker Visa Progam Being Modernized, But Critics Say Changes Aren't Enough

Sep 26, 2019

Farmers have been struggling for years to hire enough workers, and increasingly turn to the H-2A temporary visa program.

Previously, farmers took out print newspaper ads for positions they were hiring for. But starting in late October, the U.S. Department of Labor will manage those postings on a government website and use state workforce agencies to advertise jobs locally.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said last week that the changes are “bringing the H-2A process into the 21st century,” letting farmers save time and money by submitting more application paperwork electronically than before, including job postings.

But Chelsea Wenninghoff, who farms produce in eastern Nebraska, said there’s still more to reform. She will still spend months sending applications to three government agencies for approval.

“Just making some stuff online is so minor in the whole of having H-2A as a program.  That’s the least of our worries,” she said.

Wenninghoff is concerned the changes don’t confront what many farmers have known for years: The H2A program is partly gaining popularity because American workers aren’t taking farm jobs in the first place. She wants to hire locally, but hasn’t been able to keep U.S. workers on her payroll.

“Not very many U.S. workers have stayed a whole season doing the same job as what’s listed to a migrant worker,” she said, adding that she’s not sure how an online database will fix that.

Some labor advocates also believe advertising jobs online instead of the traditional way, in newspapers, will make it harder for local workers to learn about opportunities, many of whom are immigrants.

“That makes some sense, because not many farmworkers these days find jobs through a local print newspaper,” said Bruce Goldstein, a lawyer and president of the advocacy group Farmworker Justice.

Goldstein said he’s noticed many workers find jobs through word of mouth or social media — not through a government website.

“On the U.S. Department of Labor website, it looks like they're not going to be posting them in Spanish or another language of foreign workers,” he said.

Goldstein added that an English-only web policy won’t be accessible to many of those looking for field work.

“This new recruitment system does not require employers to engage with workers in a way that they're likely to find out about the jobs.”

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