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COVID travel restrictions could restrict H-2A workers

USDA Farmworker bumper sticker USDA.
GUESTWORKER SHORTAGES: Ag groups express concerns over new travel restrictions which could limit the 7,000 South African ag farmworkers.
Ag groups seek assurances that 7,000 South African guestworkers can still work on farms for upcoming spring.

Due to ongoing workforce shortages, American farmers use the H-2A guestworker visa program to fill vacant farm positions. However, they may have fewer applicants to pull from due to COVID restrictions for incoming visa workers.

More than 60 agricultural groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association and National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, sent a letter to the Biden administration requesting that agricultural workers be exempted from travel restrictions from South Africa.

The “Proclamation on Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Nonimmigrants of Certain Additional Persons Who Pose a Risk of Transmitting Coronavirus Disease 2019” prohibits travel for individuals from several countries, including South Africa, due to concerns over the omicron variant. The letter also requests flexibility in regard to the “Proclamation on Advancing the Safe Resumption of Global Travel During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which limits entry into the United States to only those fully vaccinated with a CDC-approved vaccine with limited exceptions.

The letter, addressed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, requests that the agencies ensure access to these essential members of the agricultural workforce by giving National Interest Exceptions to H-2A workers coming to the United States as outlined in the proclamations as an exception to the travel restrictions.

The letter states, “Instead of imposing travel bans that prevent critically needed H-2A workers from traveling to American farms or lead to added transportation costs that do not achieve COVID mitigation goals, farmers, H-2A workers, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department should work together to allow workers taking appropriate health and safety precautions to travel to the United States directly from their home countries.” Workers should be able to travel directly to the United States and can be vaccinated here with a CDC-approved vaccine.

Almost 7,000 guestworkers originate from South Africa, and the majority of them arrive in the U.S. in February, March and April. Many of these H-2A workers have a unique skillset, and American farmers are counting on their timely arrival as they make plans for their upcoming growing seasons. The request for National Interest Exemptions is bolstered by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency designation of food and agricultural workers as essential during the pandemic.

“While protecting our nation from new variants of COVID-19 is critically important, it is in our national interest to ensure production of food, fuel and fiber,” the letter continues. “Considering the severe supply chain disruptions taking place, losing access to key employees who originate from these countries because of travel restrictions would further limit agriculture’s ability to grow safe and nutritious food.”

According to Craig Anderson, Michigan Farm Bureau regulatory relations specialist, many workers from South Africa operate the same, or similar, equipment in their home country as they would operate in the U.S.

“There is a ‘seventh sense’ developed only through experience operating the equipment allowing these operators to detect even minor changes in the process that, if not noticed, could lead to devastating harvest results," Anderson says. “Other workers are critical to the timely planting of many crops and the transportation of harvested crops to market. Most important are those actually harvesting crops. Without harvesters the food, feed, fiber and fuel will not be on the market.” 

Should H-2A visa processing not function appropriately in the H-2A workers’ home countries, the most recent travel restriction creates a scenario in which H-2A workers from countries subject to the proclamation suspending entry will travel to nonrestricted countries and quarantine for 14 days in other nations that will allow them to enter the United States provided they are compliant with the recent vaccination and testing protocols announced last month.

“Given H-2A requirements that require agricultural employers to pay travel expenses for H-2A workers, farmers will bear the financial burden of paying for added travel, housing and per diems for these employees so they can eventually enter the United States,” the letter adds.

Source: American Farm Bureau Federation, which is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset. 

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