U.S. farms see 20 percent increase in H-2A guest workers

Mexican farm workers hoe a cabbage field on September 27, 2016 Holtville, California.
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America’s farmers are relying more and more on immigrant “guest workers” to plant and harvest the nation’s crops, data from the U.S. Office of Foreign Labor shows.

Demand for H-2A visas, an agricultural labor program, has been growing steadily over the years, reaching a high in 2017. During the first three quarters of 2017, the Department of Labor issued visas to fill over 160,000 labor positions, a nearly 20 percent increase from the 133,419 positions approved at the same time last year.

The H-2A program is managed by three federal agencies: the Department of Labor issues labor certifications and oversees labor laws; the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services determines the petitions; and the State Department issues the visas.

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There is no limit on the number of temporary labor visas issued annually, though not all applications received are certified.

H-2A Visas: By the numbers

  • Number of positions certified so far in FY2017: 160,084
  • Number certified at same point in FY2016: 133,419
  • Percent change from 2016 to 2017: 19.98%
  • Number of H-2A positions in California in FY2017: 12,292
  • Number of H-2A positions in top state Georgia: 18,886

Half of the positions certified can be credited to five states: Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, Washington and California. The five states make up nearly 81,000, or 50.6 percent, of the country’s total number of visas.

H-2A visa workers don’t make up the total amount of farm laborers in the country. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank, H-2A workers make up only 7 percent of the crop workforce in the country. The large majority are, instead, undocumented workers.

Those who use the temporary labor visa not only receive free housing (which, in many cases, aren’t great conditions) and higher wages than those who don’t have a permit.

Employers have different options when it comes to paying guest workers, including the Adverse Effect Wage Rate—a federally mandated minimum wage for agricultural guest workers. The AEWR varies depeneding on the state. In California, the 2017 AWER is $12.57 an hour, according to the Department of Labor.

The average wage for California workers in 2016, however, was $11.36 an hour—nine cents lower than the national average and $1.27 lower than the 2017 AWER.