Farmworkers, who declined to give their names, break up earth, July 1, 2021, near St. Paul, Oregon.

The US farmworker shortage spurs farmers to lobby for immigration reform

The pandemic has worsened a worker shortage, and more farms are applying to hire foreign workers.

The World

Farmworkers, who declined to give their names, break up earth near St. Paul, Oregon, July 1, 2021.

Nathan Howard/AP/File photo

Armand Eckert has spent the last week catching up on work at the family farm in southern Idaho, since heavy rains set them behind on harvesting this year’s sugar beets.

Now, they race against time — and the weather — to get the sugar beets out of the muddy field.

Related: Migrant farmworkers fight to end collaboration between Vermont police and US Customs and Border Protection

Eckert, 71, who’s been in the family farming business since 1955, said he wouldn’t be able to do the work without the migrant workers he employs each year — who usually arrive around March and leave in mid-November.

Most of the workers come from Mexico on what’s known as H-2A visas. It’s a seasonal guest worker program for agriculture work in the US that was set up by the government in 1986 to help tackle the domestic agricultural worker shortage.

For decades, Eckert said he hasn’t been able to find local workers to fill the jobs.

Some rural areas in the US are facing an agricultural labor shortage made worse by the ongoing pandemic. More farmers are hiring seasonal foreign workers each year — they say that immigration and guest worker visa reforms are their only hope for survival. But the migrant workers behind these jobs want lawmakers and employers to consider their experiences, too, before making any sweeping changes.

“I don't know what we would do if we didn't have the H-2A program. There's just no one out there that wants to do that kind of work, regardless of the wage.”

Armand Eckert, farmer, southern Idaho

“I don't know what we would do if we didn't have the H-2A program. There's just no one out there that wants to do that kind of work, regardless of the wage,” Eckert said.

Other farmers are facing a similar struggle, said Allison Crittenden, director of congressional relations with the American Farm Bureau Federation — a group representing farmers.

Related: Novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah: ‘Colonialism and its consequences are still with us’

“To put it in perspective, just 10 years ago, there were somewhere around 60,000 H-2A workers coming into this country. And now, for this year, we're on track to exceed 300,000 for the very first time,” she said.

Joel Anderson, executive director of the Snake Rivers Farmers Association in Idaho, is seeing those increases firsthand.

“And so, some of these seasonal jobs that were normally fairly easy to fill over time have become virtually impossible [to fill today],” he said.

The organization helps farmers in more than 15 different states — particularly in the Pacific Northwest region — apply for the H-2A visa program. It’s a process that could start as early as October and go through April, Anderson said. Last year, the organization helped file 850 applications to cover about 5,000 workers — but not all were approved. He expects a similar need for the next fiscal year.

Many farm groups are asking lawmakers to expand the guest worker program so that it now includes nonseasonal work. That is — farmwork that happens year-round, like work at dairy and mushroom farms.

Related: Not all youth soccer players have the same opportunities. These Iowa clubs try to shrink that gap.

Rick Naerebout, chief executive of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, said most in the dairy industry want immigration reform on top of access to the guest worker program. About half of crop farmworkers in the US are undocumented, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

For dairy workers, the numbers are about the same.

“These are individuals typically that have worked a number of years with our dairy producers. They've helped us build the industry that we have today, and we want to keep them around.”

Rick Naerebout, Idaho Dairymen’s Association, chief executive

“These are individuals typically that have worked a number of years with our dairy producers,” Naerebout said. “They've helped us build the industry that we have today, and we want to keep them around.”

Lawmakers in Congress are considering legalizing those workers as part of the budget reconciliation package, which would also give green cards to thousands of others, including recipients of DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status. But that plan has stalled in the Senate.

Also under consideration is making the H-2A program affordable. Many farmers who depend on seasonal labor say it’s expensive, since they’re required to provide workers with housing and transportation.

But there are workers’ rights groups worried about what could happen if the program grows.

Workers are often already vulnerable to exploitation, because they’re tied to one employer per season, said Bruce Goldstein, president at Farmworker Justice, a national nonprofit that works on farmworkers’ rights.

“All too often, they're not paid what they're told they're going to be paid,” Goldstein said, “But if they complain, they risk being fired and deported. So, they generally don't complain and they keep working, and then they go home at the end of the season.”

Related: ‘We all keep our lives on hold’: Thousands wait for diversity visas to go through amid pandemic, other delays 

That’s what happened to Maritza Pérez, who traveled to the US from Mexico on an H-2A visa in 2018. She was recruited to work on a farm in Alabama. Perez said she faced gender discrimination, wage theft and unsafe working conditions while picking cucumbers and squash during extremely hot and rainy days.

“Our boss wouldn’t give us rain boots when the fields were soaked, '' she said.

And on top of that — not many women get H-2A visas, Pérez said. Most recruiters are looking for men. But when women do get that visa, they typically earn less than men for the same work. Pérez said her boss, who was hired by the rancher to recruit and oversee about 70 migrant workers, would pocket a lot of their money. She complained and was fired.

In early 2021, she and another migrant worker filed a petition to the US under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, asking the government to ensure migrant worker women’s rights to equality and nondiscrimination.

Pérez said she wants workers, especially women, to be treated with respect and have more safety standards in place. She said she’s not against the visa program, but would like to see lawmakers and employers consider workers and their experiences if they’re thinking about revamping the H-2A program.

“The employers benefit from our work and they earn money, and us, too, we also satisfy our needs as workers,” she said.  “I think it's a win-win situation.”