At their annual convention, U.S. Custom Harvesters hosted a day-long H-2A learning session for their members at their annual conference in mid-January. The following week, the Biden Administration banned foreign travelers from South Africa, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and 26 other European countries due to concerns regarding COVID-19 and the new virus variants. These countries are where many custom harvesters hire their seasonal crews.
After USCHI and other ag groups expressed concerns to the Administration, the State Department announced that H-2A and H-2B travelers that were covered by the Presidential Proclamation of January 25, 2021, will now receive a waiver under the National Interest Exception since they are “essential to the economy and food security of the United States.” While this alleviates some of the concern with South African workers, it does not provide relief from other countries subject to the ban.
According to the Department of Labor, H-2A workers are defined as nonimmigrant workers that perform agricultural labor on a temporary or seasonal nature. In the third quarter of 2020, there was a four percent increase in H-2A positions from the prior year, nearing 90,000 temporary jobs. “Most custom harvesters try to fill their crews with American employees, but due to the seasonality of the job, that becomes unfeasible. Many of our members will start their harvest season in the southern states in March and will continue north until late fall. That is only about 8 months of work, so utilizing H-2A workers makes sense for our members,” said Raph Jolliffe, USCHI president.
“What I’ve been told is there are about 5,000 workers that the harvest industry uses through the H-2A program for this country,” said Louie Perry, Cornerstone Government Affairs. “We understand that a travel ban may be necessary to stop the spread of Covid-19, but it has created a serious issue for the harvesting and agricultural industry, which is the foundation of the food system. We look forward to working with the Biden Administration to define a pathway to get these essential food system workers cleared to continue to support the U.S. food supply.”