Labor a challenge for farms during COVID-19 crisis

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Ohio farm

*Updated 3/27. The State Department announced March 26 that it would authorize temporary waivers for in-person interviews for eligible H-2A visa applicants, to help the department keep processing H-2A visa applications as much as possible.

SALEM, Ohio — The U.S. Department of State announced it is suspending routine visa services at all U.S. embassies and consulates, as of March 20. The American Farm Bureau Federation has expressed concerns about how that will affect farms, since many farms hire workers through the H-2A program.

Visas

“The decision to halt visa application processing in Mexico will restrict the number of immigrant workers being allowed to enter the country. Under the new restrictions, American farmers will not have access to all of the skilled immigrant labor needed at a critical time in the planting season,” Zippy Duvall, the farm bureau’s president, said in a March 17 statement.

A spokesperson said the state department plans to keep processing H-2A cases, but needs to modify procedures due to social distancing guidelines. Some returning H-2A workers qualify for interview waivers, and the department plans to prioritize processing for these workers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Labor announced a partnership, March 19, to identify domestic and foreign workers who may be able to transfer to other agricultural employers to help fill workforce needs, as some workers might be delayed by travel restrictions or visa processing limitations.

Essential

Ohio issued a “stay at home” order, March 22. The order includes definitions of which businesses are essential and non-essential. Agriculture and farming businesses are included as essential businesses.

Pennsylvania ordered all non-life-sustaining businesses to close, March 19. Agriculture was listed as a life-sustaining business. As agricultural businesses and farms keep operating, farm workers and farms are facing specific challenges.

“The difference between a farm and some other workplaces is that most work cannot be performed remotely,” Gustavo Schuenemann and Jeffrey Workman said in an Ohio State Extension fact sheet, March 19.

Schuenemann and Workman noted that people who are only in contact with other people at their house or farm are less likely to be exposed to the virus, and said all farms should add stricter protocols for outside visitors. They also reiterated the importance of social distancing, sanitation and avoiding contact with people who are sick.

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