In light of the fluid situation relating to COVID-19, Arkansas Farm Bureau leaders and policy experts held a conference call with the entire Arkansas Congressional delegation to discuss issues and concerns related to accessing foreign labor through the H-2A program. This is a summary of the call, including key discussion points and available information and reference.
Many Arkansas ag producers utilize the H-2A guest worker visa program to fill employment gaps by hiring workers from other countries. The situation surrounding COVID-19 and the H-2A program remains fluid and is changing daily or hourly in some cases.
For the latest information, the USDA has set up a portal on their website to address H-2A questions: www.farmers.gov/manage/h2a.
You can also email directly with USDA at firstname.lastname@example.org, about specific H-2A issues. Producers can also access the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/map-and-travel-notices.html to ensure they can get workers from counties.
Congressman Crawford shared that his office is in daily contact with the State Department and is working to provide producers greater clarity on who can enter the United States. He also shared that, through the CDC website, countries have been assigned distinct levels for travel restrictions. Individuals who have been in Level 3 countries will not be allowed to enter the United States. The Congressman also shared updates on individual embassies:
- South Africa -- The Consulate has stopped processing H-2A visas, but will process emergency requests. The applicant (the labor recruiter) should make the emergency request. Moreover, workers traveling to the United States should avoid going through Level 3 countries; i.e. DO NOT bring workers to the U.S. via Europe.
- Mexico – At this time, the U.S. Embassy in Monterey will continue to process H-2A visas with priority designation for returning workers, meaning workers who have been to the U.S. in the last 12 months.
Finally, Congressman Crawford shared his proposal to create a prison-worker state program to address the H-2A shortages. This program would allow for inmates to be trained to work on farms.
Senator Cotton communicated the need to think of new ways to address the labor shortage, specifically reaching out to recently unemployed Arkansans to access a new labor pool. Senator Boozman shared his initiatives to ensure that a reliable and safe food supply chain remains top priority. His office is in contact with the Administration, reiterating the need for food safety protocols (like FSIS inspectors) to remain in place. He has communicated with USDA Secretary Perdue on the need for greater flexibility for the H-2A program to allow producers to continue to operate during this time of uncertainty.
Congressman Womack also voiced his support to find solutions to address the labor needs and encouraged producers to continue to provide the Congressional Delegation with feedback. Congressman Westerman explained that his office is also willing and ready to work with producers to get answers to H-2A inquiries, noting the important work these workers perform to provide our nation with an abundant and safe food supply. Congressman Hill also participated in the call, sharing his office's readiness to assist in any manner. Producers asked numerous questions, the delegation did not have a solution for producers whose H-2A workers absconded for farms out of state. This has occurred in the past and remains a concern in 2020.