Utah farmers cheered early this year when then-President Donald Trump on his way out the door pushed a rule change that agriculture interests believed would streamline and improve the system for bringing in temporary foreign workers during planting and harvesting seasons.
But it didn’t last long. President Joe Biden’s Labor Department withdrew the rule before it took effect, drawing praise from worker-rights advocates who say the Trump rules would have only worsened the lot of migrants who are too often overworked and underpaid.
Springville produce farmer Jake Harward was one who supported the proposed modernization of the H-2A visa application process, saying it’s a complicated ordeal that farmers must muddle through all over again every year to ensure they have the workers they need during their busy seasons.
Currently, Harward said, he has to start the “tedious” and complex H-2A process almost half a year before he needs the labor.
First, Harward has to advertise the jobs in Utah and surrounding states and prove he can’t find domestic workers to fill the positions. Next, he has to show proof of insurance, file paperwork and pay fees to the Department of Labor. Upon approval of his paperwork, the department sends representatives to inspect the workers’ housing, which Harward is required to provide.
Finally, his workers need to report to their U.S. Consulate for interviews and background checks. Sometimes the process has stalled so long his workers miss the entire season. Harward said he goes through this process annually, despite hiring mostly the same workers year after year.
“I understand there needs to be a process, but it’d just be better if it was streamlined where I’m not having problems,” he said. “You know, maybe I could get just a quick extension or something like that.”
But migrant labor rights activists hailed the Biden administration’s action to pump the brakes.
Trump’s proposed changes “would have been devastating to tens of thousands of U.S. and foreign farmworkers,” Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice said in an article posted on the nonprofit’s website. He added the organization, which says its mission is to empower migrant and seasonal farmworkers, was grateful for the new administration’s quick action.
H-2A regulations exist to protect workers from exploitation, Goldstein told The Tribune in an interview.
Foreign workers are especially vulnerable, he said, because many come from countries much poorer than the United States, and their employers control whether or not they get a visa.
Guest workers are “very reluctant to do anything or say anything that might get them fired,” he said, even if that means “they work to the limits of human endurance for whatever wages are paid to them without complaining.”
Utah Farm Bureau Federation spokesman Matt Hargreaves said the notion that Americans only hire foreigners for cheap labor or that immigrant workers are taking jobs away from Americans are misconceptions.
Bringing in international workers is often more expensive for farmers because they have to pay for housing and the fees associated with the H-2A process, but farmers still choose to hire them because they are often highly skilled.
“A lot of Americans have really gotten out of the habit of knowing how to work in agriculture and just don’t really know how to do it,” Hargreaves said.
One area in which Utah farmers are hoping to see change is in the methodology for determining foreign workers’ wages.
Hargreaves said the current methods have resulted in wild and unpredictable variations in rates from year to year, making it difficult for farmers to plan financially.
“Farmers are committed to paying their employees a fair wage, but the way the wage has been set in the past was flawed,” Hargreaves said.
Attempts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture under Trump to change the methodology and to freeze the wage rate have been blocked in the courts.
Farmworker Justice views the return to the original methodology as a win for workers. The nonprofit said in a news release that the wage rate calculation will save farm workers $178 million a year over the next decade, helping them to improve their quality of life.
Because none of the Trump changes went through, the Department of Labor calculated the 2021 adverse effect wage rate using the old methodology from 2010. Utah’s 2021 wage rate is $14.82 an hour, the Department of Labor published Tuesday.
Since Harward markets most of his produce through fruit stands, he said he can adjust his prices to account for changing wage rates. Farmers selling their crops to wholesalers, however, don’t have that freedom. They have to sell at market price, regardless of what they’re paying their guest workers.
Utah farmers are still hopeful for change in the H-2A process, but are realistic that the planned Trump changes won’t be revived any time soon.
“It’s very typical for the incoming administration to pause and review and reconsider what was done by those preceding them,” Allison Crittenden, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said. “I don’t think we’ll see this rule in the form that it was in in the Trump administration being taken up by the Biden administration.”