Report | Immigration

Coronavirus and farmworkers: Farm employment, safety issues, and the H-2A guestworker program

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Employment on farms is lower in March, but increases through the spring and peaks in July. Here are key issues to consider as farm employment is set to increase in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic:

  • Farm employers will need to provide adequate safety equipment and implement social distancing measures to keep workers safe, even if some safety measures reduce productivity; they should also provide health insurance and paid sick days.
  • Policies implemented in response to the coronavirus could affect the pool of farmworkers available, specifically school closures and changes in visa processing for H-2A farmworkers—migrant workers hired to fill temporary or seasonal agriculture jobs lasting less than one year.
  • H-2A farmworkers make up 10% of crop farmworkers in the country. The Department of State’s visa processing policies in response to the coronavirus that limit processing to returning workers could reduce the number of H-2A workers who can be employed on U.S. farms by as many as 60,000, although federal agencies appear to be attempting to mitigate this by seeking to transfer current H-2A workers with contracts set to expire to other farms seeking workers.
  • Employers are responsible for housing H-2A workers and providing them with daily transport, which means there are additional health and safety issues employers need to consider.
  • The prospect of higher unemployment nationally and in key agricultural states during the coming months due to the coronavirus should motivate farm employers to increase their recruitment efforts among unemployed workers, including both U.S.-born and immigrant workers.
  • Employers in five states, but especially in California, may see an increased need to pay more overtime hours to farmworkers. Paying more hours in overtime wages to their current workforce is a viable option if farmers end up facing a labor shortage

Work and travel restrictions for nonessential U.S. workers aimed at slowing the spread of the COVID-19 are being implemented across the country, but working remotely is not an option for most workers, including farmworkers, who are considered “essential.”1

Farmworkers already labor under what can sometimes be dangerous and unhealthy conditions, and now COVID-19 presents an additional challenge.2 Farm employers are also rightly concerned about the impacts of COVID-19 on the supply of farmworkers, who may be unable to work if they become infected. To prevent infections and the spread of COVID-19 on farms, farm employers should be planning and implementing safety measures to protect their employees. This report lays out what employers should consider and discusses three other major concerns that could impact farm labor: school closures, the availability of H-2A guestworkers, and overtime pay.

Employment on farms is lower in March but will increase through spring and peak in summer

Most farmworkers are employed on crop farms, where employment reaches a low during the winter months, with peak employment in July. March is usually the trough month for “crop support employment”—mostly a measure of workers brought to farms by labor contractors—and is one of the lowest months for overall crop employment. The exceptions are in Arizona and Florida, where March is a peak month for employment on crop farms, as well as in the many farms in Mexico that export fruits and vegetables to the United States. In some sectors like animal agriculture, which includes work on dairies and poultry farms, there is little seasonal variation in employment.

One useful measure to help understand the agricultural employment cycle comes from the reports that employers submit to unemployment insurance (UI) agencies about the workers they employ. Those reports capture just over three-fourths of the jobs in agriculture (but not all because smaller employers in some states are exempt from reporting and some migrant employees are not counted in certain states). The employers that are required to report to UI regularly report the number of workers they employ for the payroll period that includes the 12th of each month. Across the United States, employment reported through UI in crop, animal, and crop support agriculture peaked in July 2018 at almost 1.3 million and was less than one million in January 2018 (see Figure A). (Data for 2019 are not yet available.)

Figure A

Farmworker employment increases in spring and peaks in the summer: Unemployment-insurance-covered employment in crop, animal, and crop support agriculture, 2018

Crops Animals Crop support
2018-01-01 444,727 258,685 286,890
2018-02-01 468,608 259,262 296,338
2018-03-01 492,651 261,386 279,983
2018-04-01 539,485 262,323 322,193
2018-05-01 576,550 266,132 363,201
2018-06-01 619,037 269,758 385,042
2018-07-01 624,332 269,423 392,481
2018-08-01 603,611 268,574 376,804
2018-09-01 611,683 265,375 366,898
2018-10-01 604,342 265,776 360,669
2018-11-01 528,561 263,809 332,373
2018-12-01 479,123 262,850 302,493
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Note: “Crop support” is mostly a measure of workers brought to farms by labor contractors.

“Crop support” is mostly a measure of workers brought to farms by labor contractors. Over 80% of employment in agriculture is covered by unemployment insurance (although smaller employers in some states are exempt from the program).

Source: Authors’ analysis of U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages

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Safety measures on farms are needed

The most important thing farm employers should do now is devise safety plans and procedures and procure additional safety and sanitation equipment. In order to keep healthy, farmworkers need access to masks, gloves, and other safety equipment, as well ways to disinfect their hands, tools, clothing, and machinery.

Employers may need to implement “social distancing” measures in fields and packing facilities to minimize the risk of farmworkers infecting one another. This will require changes in workplace habits that may be uncomfortable for workers and may reduce productivity if, for example, crews that work conveyor belts in vegetable fields are shrunk to avoid close contact.

Employers should encourage farmworkers to report when they feel ill and to stay home if they are sick, and not punish them for it. If workers think they will be disciplined, have their hours cut, or be fired, they may work sick, endangering their colleagues. Some Mexican exporters are reportedly checking the temperatures of their workers and barring visitors, fearing that a COVID-19 case could prevent them from exporting produce to the United States.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) found that less than half of crop workers have health insurance, and only 29% had a health plan that was provided by their employer.3 If farm employers want workers to stay home when they get sick and to seek treatment before returning to work, they should provide health coverage and offer paid sick days.

School closings could reduce the number of workers seeking farm employment

The closure of K–12 public schools may reduce the number of farmworkers because some would-be farmworkers will have to stay home as a result of child care responsibilities. According to the NAWS, half of crop farmworkers are parents of minor children, each with an average of two children under the age of 18 living in the household.4 Without classrooms, day care, and school-related activities to keep children occupied, many parents will be supervising and home-schooling their children full time for at least the next few months.

The number of H-2A temporary migrant workers may decrease in 2020, and additional safety measures are needed for them in light of COVID-19

A major issue on the minds of farmers and farmworkers is the impact of COVID-19 on the H-2A program, the main U.S. work visa program to fill temporary and seasonal farm jobs with migrant guestworkers. The U.S. Department of State (DOS) issued over 200,000 visas to H-2A guestworkers in fiscal 2019 (see Figure B), and each H-2A worker was employed in the United States for an average of six months. That means that H-2A workers filled 10% of the roughly one million full-time-equivalent jobs in U.S. crop agriculture.

Figure B

Agricultural guestworker employment is rapidly expanding: H-2A jobs certified and visas issued, 2005–2019

Jobs certified Visas issued
2005 48,336 31,892
2006 59,110 37,149
2007 76,814 50,791
2008 82,099 64,404
2009 86,014 60,112
2010 79,011 55,921
2011 77,246 55,384
2012 85,248 65,345
2013 98,821 74,192
2014 116,689 89,274
2015 139,832 108,144
2016 165,741 134,368
2017 200,049 161,583
2018 242,762 196,409
2019 257,667 204,801
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Note: H-2A farmworkers—migrant workers hired to fill temporary or seasonal agriculture jobs lasting less than one year—make up 10% of crop farmworkers in the United States.

Source: Authors’ analysis of U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Foreign Labor Certification, OFLC Performance Data, and U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, Nonimmigrant Visa Statistics

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The Office of Foreign Labor Certification (OFLC) within the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) processes labor certifications for H-2A jobs—the first step in the process, in which employers seeking to hire an H-2A worker must show that no U.S. workers are available. OFLC announced in an FAQ that its systems will remain “fully operational” during the COVID-19 pandemic and that it “continues to process and issue prevailing wage determinations and labor certifications” for H-2A jobs.5 However, another key agency involved in H-2A is DOS, which announced March 17 that it was stopping mandatory in-person interviews for migrants who were applying for H-2A visas for the first time in Mexico as part of its efforts to reduce travel between the United States and Mexico (over 90% of H-2A workers are from Mexico).6 The in-person interview is a necessary step before H-2A workers can enter and work in the United States. Reuters later reported that DOS would process H-2A visas in Mexico and waive the in-person interviews, but only for migrant applicants who are “returning workers,” meaning they had previously worked in the United States with H-2A visas.7

It’s not clear yet how the H-2A program will be affected by processing only returning workers. DOS has not published data on the share of H-2A workers who are returning workers or announced how long the new visa processing policy will last. Some farm employers and associations report that 80% to 90% of H-2A guestworkers are returning workers, while a representative from the Western Growers Association told Reuters that only 40% are returning workers.8 If DOS processes only returning worker applicants for the next month or two, the impact could be minor, regardless of the share who are returning workers, given the lower farm employment levels in March and April. But if this practice stays in place for six months or more, during which no new applicants for H-2A visas can enter the United States, the impact could be significant. If we assume that 80% of visa applicants are returning workers, after six months the result of the policy to permit only returning workers would be 20,000 fewer H-2A guestworkers compared with 2019. If we assume that only 40% are returning workers, then there’d be 60,000 fewer after six months.

During a White House press briefing on March 20, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed the H-2A program and the measures taken to reduce travel across the U.S.-Mexico border:

We’re real concerned about H-2A visas and particularly agricultural workers who are going to need to get across… We’re going to make sure we do everything we can to keep that part of our economic lifeblood working between our two countries.9

DTN, an industry website, followed up and spoke with DOS, reporting that a spokesperson told them “offices will continue processing H-2A cases as much as possible while trying to ensure social distancing recommended by health authorities.” DOS further noted that “As a matter of policy, consular sections worldwide prioritize H-2A applications, given the significant economic importance of these workers for farmers and small business.”10

In an apparent nod to the possibility that fewer H-2A workers will be employed in 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and DOL published a joint statement announcing a new partnership to

help facilitate the identification of foreign and domestic workers that may be available and eligible to transfer to other U.S. agricultural sector employers to fulfill critical workforce needs within the U.S. under existing regulatory authority during the COVID-19 pandemic.11

What this means is that the agencies are searching for currently employed H-2A workers whose jobs are set to end, and will consider helping to arrange their transfer to other farm employers seeking workers if they have an existing approved labor certification from DOL. The agencies state that they have identified nearly 20,000 jobs “that have expiring contracts in the coming weeks.”12 As far as we know, this is an unprecedented move and it’s difficult to predict what kind of an impact it could have in practice.

The potential for a reduction in the number of H-2A workers available, coupled with the prospect of higher unemployment nationally due to COVID-19, should motivate farm employers to increase their recruitment efforts among unemployed workers in the United States. Three key agricultural states alone—California, Florida, and New York—are projected to lose 3.4 million jobs by the summer, 1.6 million in California alone.13 The NAWS reveals that a quarter of crop workers were born in the United States, which shows that that U.S.-born workers are willing to work on farms, and suggests that some unemployed U.S.-born workers could be recruited to work in agriculture.14 In addition, many immigrants working in service industries in the United States are likely to lose their jobs over the next few months. Targeted outreach efforts to both groups—unemployed U.S.-born and immigrant workers—has the potential to result in additional farmworkers.

Regardless of how many H-2A workers end up employed in 2020, all H-2A employers are responsible for housing H-2A workers and providing them with daily transport between the worksite and living quarters, which raises additional health and safety issues. Many H-2A workers share bedrooms, raising the question of whether employers should arrange additional housing, as well as alternative housing for workers who get sick or are exposed to the virus and need to be quarantined. Will employers allow infected workers to recover in employer-provided housing or will they fire them, causing them to lose their immigration status and become deportable? Like other farmworkers, many H-2As lack health care coverage; will employers assist them in finding a doctor and help pay medical bills? The coronavirus raises other questions too, including how to adequately clean transport vehicles and implement social distancing during transport.

Farm employers might have to pay additional overtime wages

Another issue in some states will be the impact of overtime pay for farmworkers. Five states—including California—require overtime pay after workers exceed a threshold number of hours worked per day or week. California requires larger farm employers to pay overtime wages to farmworkers after nine hours a day and 50 hours a week in 2020.15 Many farmers want to avoid paying overtime wages, arguing that paying 1.5 times a worker’s usual wage is too costly. However, if fewer farmworkers are available due to closed schools and fewer H-2A workers are entering the United States, it might be difficult to find additional farmworkers and avoid overtime pay.

NAWS data show that one-third of farmworkers in California were employed more than 50 hours per week in 2015–2016, including 5% who were employed more than 60 hours a week (see Figure C). Paying more hours in overtime wages to their current workforce is a viable option if farmers end up facing a labor shortage.

Figure C

One-third of California crop workers are employed more than 50 hours per week: Share of California crop workers with given number of average hours worked per week, 2015–2016

Hours Share
1–40 34%
41–45 10%
46–50 22%
51–55 15%
56–60 14%
> 60 5%
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Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration, National Agricultural Workers Survey

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About the authors

Daniel Costa is the director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute. His areas of research include a wide range of labor migration issues, including temporary labor migration programs, immigrant workers’ rights, and forced migration. He has testified on immigration before the U.S. Congress and state governments and shared his expertise in a number of news outlets, including ABC News, The New York Times, Roll Call, La Opinión, and The Sacramento Bee. He has an LL.M. in International and Comparative Law from Georgetown University Law Center and a J.D. in International Law from Syracuse University.

Philip Martin is professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis. He edits Rural Migration News, has served on several federal commissions, and testifies frequently before Congress. He is an award-winning author who has worked for U.N. agencies around the world on labor and migration issues. His latest book is Merchants of Labor: Recruiters and International Labor Migration (Oxford University Press, 2017), a pioneering analysis of recruiters in low-skilled labor markets, explaining the prominent role of labor intermediaries.

Endnotes

1. Elise Gould and Heidi Shierholz, “Not Everybody Can Work from Home: Black and Hispanic Workers Are Much Less Likely to Be Able to Telework,” Working Economics (Economic Policy Institute blog), March 19, 2020; Christopher C. Krebs, “Memorandum on Identification of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers During COVID-19 Response,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security, March 19, 2020.

2. Ruxandra Guidi, “Farmworkers Face Illness and Death in the Fields,” High Country News, August 20, 2018.

3.  Employment and Training Administration, Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey 2015–2016: A Demographic and Employment Profile of United States Farmworkers, Research Report No. 13, and 20152016 data files, U.S. Department of Labor, January 2018; https://www.doleta.gov/naws/.

4.  Employment and Training Administration, Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey 2015–2016: A Demographic and Employment Profile of United States Farmworkers, Research Report No. 13, and 20152016 data files, U.S. Department of Labor, January 2018; https://www.doleta.gov/naws/.

5.  Office of Foreign Labor Certification, “COVID-19: Frequently Asked Questions, Round 1,” Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, March 20, 2020.

6.  Alicia A. Caldwell and Michelle Hackman, “U.S. Suspends Visa Processing in Mexico, Threatening Businesses Reliant on Seasonal Workers,” Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2020.

7.  Chris Walljasper, “U.S. Limits Mexico Guest Worker Visas, Sends Farmers Scrambling,” Reuters, March 17, 2020.

8.  Chris Walljasper, “U.S. Limits Mexico Guest Worker Visas, Sends Farmers Scrambling,” Reuters, March 17, 2020.

9. Chris Clayton, “Pompeo: Border Open to H-2A Workers,” Progressive Farmer, March 20, 2020.

10. Chris Clayton, “Pompeo: Border Open to H-2A Workers,” Progressive Farmer, March 20, 2020.

11. U.S. Department of Agriculture, “USDA and DOL Announce Information Sharing to Assist H-2A Employers” (press release), March 19, 2020.

12.  U.S. Department of Agriculture, “USDA and DOL Announce Information Sharing to Assist H-2A Employers” (press release), March 19, 2020.

13. David Cooper, unpublished (as of March 24) data update to “Estimated Jobs Lost Due to Coronavirus by Summer 2020, by State,” Figure A in David Cooper and Julia Wolfe, “Every State Will Lose Jobs as a Result of the Coronavirus,” Working Economics (Economic Policy Institute blog), March 19, 2020.

14.  Employment and Training Administration, Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey 2015–2016: A Demographic and Employment Profile of United States Farmworkers, Research Report No. 13, and 20152016 data files, U.S. Department of Labor, January 2018; https://www.doleta.gov/naws/.

15.  “Overtime and California Farm Workers,” Rural Migration News, March 17, 2020.


See related work on Guestworkers | Coronavirus | Farm labor

See more work by Daniel Costa and Philip Martin