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Visa suspension worries New York farm leaders

Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images A worker harvests apples in a Western Massachusetts orchard
LABOR PAINS: The COVID-19 crisis could make getting H-2A workers from Mexico a problem this year.
New York is the second-largest apple producing state in the U.S., and H-2A workers staff many orchards.

The New York Farm Bureau has sent a letter to President Donald Trump expressing concern over the administration’s decision to suspend visa processing in Mexico.

The State Department last week stopped processing visas for U.S. entry in its offices across Mexico, including new visas for seasonal workers, to help control the spread of the coronavirus.

In a “Notice to H-2A Petitioners,” the State Department says the U.S. Consulate General Monterrey would prioritize the processing of returning H-2 workers who are eligible for an interview waiver over any new workers.

“As a reminder, ‘returning H-2 workers (IW)’ are applicants whose H-2A or H-2B visas have expired in the last 12 months and are now applying for the same visa classification and did not require a waiver the last time they applied for a visa,” the statement reads.

In its letter to Trump, Farm Bureau pressed the government to make an exception for H-2A workers to be allowed into the country from Mexico.

The letter states: “While we are not asking the administration to jeopardize public health and safety or border security, NYFB requests that the Department of Labor, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services ensures that all H-2A visa applications are reviewed and acted upon in a timely manner to ensure the flow of approved H-2A workers into the U.S.

“We also want to ensure that the administration will allow these H-2A workers, who have been evaluated and do not pose a health risk, are able to travel into the U.S. and reach their place of employment. It is imperative that no borders, where there have not been widespread cases of Covid-19, be completely shut to allow the entry of these essential workers.”

New York is the country’s second-largest apple producing state, with 8,104 H-2A workers in 2019 according to New York Farm Bureau. Pennsylvania had around 1,800 H-2A workers in 2019, according to Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. By comparison, Washington state, the country’s largest apple producer and one of the epicenters of the COVID-19 outbreak, had more than 25,000 H-2A workers in 2019.

There were more than 200,000 total H-2A workers on U.S. farms in 2019.

Bracing for a shortage

Brian Reeves, owner of Reeves Farm in Baldwinsville, N.Y., had 52 H-2A workers last year to help harvest his 350 acres of fresh-market vegetables.

He expects to get most of his workers back this season, but he was hoping to get 11 more workers to help him comply with the state’s new labor law, which requires farmworkers be paid overtime after 60 hours a week and grants farmworkers one day off a week.

Reeves planned on giving a day off to nine workers each day in order to fill his labor needs and not pay overtime. But given the current situation with the State Department, he may not get those new workers, forcing him to make tough decisions like not planting some crops.

“It’s not all clear to me when we’re going to get new people,” he says, adding that he might try to get more local workers. But experience has showed him that not many local people want these kinds of jobs. Reeves says he gets one, maybe two, local workers each season, and many of these people don’t stay.

In contrast, some of his H-2A workers have been coming for many years.

“These people, they have been retrained year after year on food safety protocols,” he says. “They know how to work and how to get it done.”

Steven McKay of H2 Express says getting local workers could be a good alternative this year, especially for those in the hospitality business who have been laid off as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

He says most H-2A workers in New York come from Mexico or Guatemala, but farmers can also get workers from other places such as Jamaica or Mongolia. A full list is available online. McKay says it comes down to how much farmers are willing to spend to get workers from more faraway countries since they’re responsible for paying those transportation costs.

Reeves, who is also president of the New York Vegetable Growers Association, says any grower who depends on H-2A workers should be in contact with the congressional representative or their employment recruiter.

Transferring workers

Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue announced Thursday a partnership between the USDA and the U.S. Department of Labor to help facilitate the identification of foreign and domestic workers who may be available to transfer to other ag sector employers to fulfill critical workforce needs. 

According to the USDA press release, 20,000 H-2A and H-2B certified positions have expiring contracts in the coming weeks. There will be workers leaving these positions who could be available to transfer to a different employer’s labor certification.

The data, available on, includes the number of certified worker positions, the current employer name and contact, attorney/agent name and contact, and the worksite address.

Employers are encouraged to monitor for the latest information and should monitor the relevant embassy or consular websites for specific operational information.

Read more online about the U.S. suspension of the visa process in Mexico.

Information on the State Department’s notice provided by the United Fresh Produce Association.

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