The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) says that it has found a number of inefficiencies in the H-2A temporary agricultural labor visa program, and the department has a solution: change the program’s rules. The DOL has proposed a number of administrative rule changes that it believes will make the approval process move along quicker, relieve burdens on U.S. farms, and create a more level playing field with regards to pay. Before we talk about the rule changes, let’s recap what the H-2A program is.
H-2A is a visa program for seasonal agricultural laborers from other countries.
Labor shortages have plagued farms across the United States for decades. Congress first created a visa program for non-immigrant labor in the early 1950s, but it wasn’t until 1986 that Congress established the H-2A visa program for temporary agricultural workers. Under this program, farmers may apply to employ H-2A workers on their farm on a temporary or seasonal basis for up to a year, but may apply to renew the worker’s visa for up to three total years.
In order to hire H-2A workers, an employer must certify in an application to the DOL that there are not enough qualified domestic workers willing and able to perform temporary and seasonal agricultural labor. In order to prove that there is not enough domestic labor, the farmer must demonstrate an effort to advertise the available work in the local area.
Further, the farmer must demonstrate to the DOL that employing foreign workers will not negatively affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers. In other words, a farmer can’t hire foreign labor because it’s cheaper. A farmer is expected to pay the foreign workers the same as the farmer would pay domestic workers, based upon the higher of the DOL’s Adverse Effect Wage Rate, minimum wage, or prevailing wage.
What does the Department of Labor seek to change?
The DOL proposes to make several changes to the H-2A program’s administrative rules. Some of these changes update the rules to reflect what is already happening, while some make slight changes to the program’s overall scope.
- Mandate e-filing. The DOL currently allows farmers to submit their applications online or in hard copy, but reports that 4/5 of applications are completed online. A review by the DOL has found that online applications get completed more quickly, have fewer errors, and reduce costs relative to hard copy submissions. Under the new rule, the DOL would require all applications to be completed online, unless the farmer has a disability or does not have internet access.
- Allow e-signatures. The DOL currently requires farmers to sign a hard copy of their applications and either scan the document into the application or mail it. Under the new rule, the DOL would accept e-signatures as equal to handwritten signatures.
- Subdivide the adverse effect wage rate based upon specific agricultural occupations. In the previous section, we noted that the farmer must pay the foreign workers the same as he or she would pay domestic workers. One way to determine that wage is to use the DOL’s Adverse Effect Wage Rate. Currently, the DOL has one rate for a state or region based upon the combined numbers for field and livestock workers. Under the new rule, the DOL would use Farm Labor Survey data to subdivide agricultural occupations in order to ensure that higher paying occupations, such as supervisors of farmworkers and construction laborers on farms, use an Adverse Effect Wage Rate that properly reflects the wages of those higher paying occupations, rather than one general rate for all agricultural workers.
- Update the methodology for calculating prevailing wage standards. Another way to calculate the minimum wages of H-2A laborers is to base their pay off of the prevailing wage. The current method of calculating the prevailing wage, which has not been updated since 1981, requires in-person interviews of employers. Under the new rule, the DOL would eliminate the in-person requirement and allow states to collect data using more modern methods.
- Incorporate guidance letters regarding animal shearing, commercial beekeeping, custom combining, and reforestation occupations into formal rules. When asked for an interpretation of its rules and policies, a federal agency may issue a guidance letter to the person seeking an interpretation. These guidance letters are not necessarily binding, and have no general application beyond the person seeking the interpretation. By incorporating the guidance into a formal rule, the interpretation holds the force of law. The DOL identified these occupations as unique relative to other agricultural occupations, and created a special set of procedures to obtain H-2A laborers to work these types of jobs.
- Expand the definition of “agriculture” to include reforestation and pine straw activities. Currently, reforestation and pine straw occupations are only available for H-2B applications, which are for non-agricultural occupations. Under the new rule, these activities would be eligible for the agricultural based visa.
- Reduce the time an employer must allow a domestic worker to apply for a job to 30 days. Currently, the DOL requires a farmer to hire all eligible, willing, and qualified U.S. workers who make themselves available to work until the half way point in the H2-A contract period. This means that if a farmer has H-2A laborers working under a six-month contract, then the farmer must hire any eligible, willing, and qualified domestic worker during the first three months of the contract. Under the new rule, the farmer would only have to leave such opportunity open to domestic workers for 30 days.
- Allow an employer to stagger the entry of H-2A labor. Sometimes a farmer does not need all of the H-2A labor to arrive at once, but rather needs some to start on one date and then others to start on a different date. Currently, this would require the farmer to submit an application for each date on which the farmer needs H-2A labor. Under the new rule, the farmer would be able to submit one application but stagger the start dates of his or her workers over the course of 120 days. This 120-day clock begins on the day the first H-2A workers enter the U.S.
For more information about the proposed changes, visit the proposed rule’s entry on the Federal Register HERE.
The public may submit comments until September 24, 2019.
As part of the public rulemaking process, the DOL is seeking public input on the proposed rule changes. Members of the public may submit written comments to the DOL until Tuesday, September 24, 2019.
You may submit a comment online (visit https://www.regulations.gov/) or by mail (send to Adele Gagliardi, Administrator, Office of Policy Development and Research, Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, 200 Constitution Avenue NW, Room N-5641, Washington, DC 20210). When mailing comments, be sure to include the rule’s Regulatory Information Number (RIN): 1205-AB89.
August turned out to be a very busy month for food law. We’re again reading headlines about the definition of meat and debates over cage-free egg laws. We’ve also come across some interesting criminal actions involving organic labeling fraud and undocumented workers at poultry processing plants. And yet again we have a Roundup update, but fortunately for Bayer, the target of the latest lawsuits are Home Depot and Lowe’s. So without further ado, here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news you may want to know:
Tofurkey cries foul against state definitions of meat. The maker of edible vegetarian products designed to replicate the taste and texture of meats is fighting back against state labeling and advertising laws that require products labeled as “meat” to be made of meat. Tofurky filed a lawsuit in federal court in Arkansas to stop the state from enforcing such laws, which is similar to a lawsuit it filed in Missouri and yet another company filed in Mississippi. Livestock advocacy groups succeeded in having 12 states pass laws restricting the ability of food producers to refer to their products as meats if those products contain no meat. Livestock advocacy groups argue that the labeling practices are confusing and misleading to consumers, while companies like Tofurky argue that they have a constitutional right to describe their products with meat terminology. On its website, Tofurky lists beer brats, jumbo hot dogs, “slow roasted chick’n,” “ham style roast,” and more. None of the products contain meat.
Organic food fraud puts farmers in jail. A federal judge sentenced a 60-year-old Missouri farmer to serve 10 years and 2 months in prison after being convicted of wire fraud, which is the federal crime of committing financial fraud through the use of a telecommunications wire across state lines. This includes placing a phone call, sending an email, or advertising online in the furtherance of the fraudulent scheme. Another three farmers were also sentenced to prison for terms ranging from 3 months to 2 years for their participation. The fraud involved a decade-long scheme to mix traditional corn and soybeans with a small amount of organic grains and then label everything as certified organic. The grains were mostly sold as animal feed to producers and companies selling organic meat. Organic products generally are sold at a high premium, and the volume of goods in this scheme resulted in the farmers receiving millions of dollars from consumers that was fraudulently obtained. The lengthy prison sentences reflect the farmers’ intentional misrepresentation and mislabeling. In other words, it was not an accident.
Oregon joins California and Washington to make the west coast cage-free. States continue to battle over whether eggs should come from cage-free hens or caged hens. When we last discussed the topic HERE in May, the governor of the state of Washington had just signed his state’s cage-free requirement into law. Iowa, the nation’s leading egg producing state, has gone the other way in trying to limit cage-free egg production. Now, Oregon is set to ban the purchase or sale of eggs and egg products from caged hens starting in 2024. However, Oregon’s law exempts eggs and egg products from caged hens if the sale occurs at a federally inspected plant under the Egg Products Inspection Act or if the caged hens were at a commercial farm with a flock of fewer than 3,000 hens. You can read the text of the bill HERE.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids poultry processing plants. Federal immigration officials have alleged that managers at five Mississippi poultry processing plants knowingly hired undocumented aliens who are not authorized to work in the United States. Fines for individuals or companies proven to have actual knowledge that they hired undocumented workers can reach up to $3,000 per undocumented worker. Individuals may also face prison time. According to news reports, ICE arrested 680 possibly undocumented workers during its August 7th raids in Mississippi. In their applications for the search warrants, the investigators alleged that the companies hired undocumented workers who were wearing GPS ankle monitors as they await deportation hearings, reported Social Security numbers of deceased persons, and used different names at different times.
Latest Roundup lawsuit targets retailers Home Depot and Lowe’s. You’ve heard us talk before about the thousands of lawsuits against Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) based on the allegation that the glyphosate in products like Roundup has caused cancer. If you’d like a refresher, you can review our last post HERE. Now, instead of going after the manufacturer, a new plaintiff is going after retailers. Plaintiff James Weeks filed two class action complaints in federal court in California against Home Depot and Lowe’s, alleging that the home improvement giants failed to adequately warn customers about the safety risks posed by using the popular weed killer. Mr. Weeks argues that the labeling leaves the average consumer with the impression that the greatest risk of harm is eye irritation, when in fact the retailers know of the product’s potential carcinogenic properties. As these complaints are class action complaints, Mr. Weeks seeks to claim representative status over all consumers who purchased Roundup products from these retailers, and thereby lead the case against the retailers. It will be interesting to see whether the court certifies these cases as class actions, or if this strategy falls short for the plaintiff. You can read the complaint against Home Depot HERE.
Food giants seek silence from U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. In 2015, the U.S. Commodity Futures Tradition Commission initiated a lawsuit against Mondelez International Inc. and Kraft Heinz Co. for allegedly manipulating the wheat futures market. All parties recently agreed to an undisclosed settlement, and entered into a consent order with the court to close the matter. The agreement apparently included a provision that all parties would refrain from publically commenting about the settlement. However, the federal agency ended up commenting on the settlement by the end of the week in which the agreement was finalized. Mondelez and Kraft Heinz believe that such statements violated the terms of the consent order, although the federal agency contests the allegation. Nonetheless, the confidentiality restrictions make it difficult to know the full details of the settlement. All we know for certain is that there was one.
Federal courts report that Chapter 12 family farm bankruptcies are on the rise. The federal court system releases data every quarter on the number of bankruptcies filed each month in that quarter. The latest numbers for April to June 2019 showed a slight increase in the number of Chapter 12 bankruptcies filed when compared to the same time period in 2018. Nationwide, there were 164 new filings, compared to 135 in the second quarter of 2018. The numbers show a gradual increase in the use of Chapter 12 bankruptcy since 2013, but the numbers are starting to tick up to levels not seen since the Great Recession. Chapter 12 bankruptcy is a special form of bankruptcy that can only be used by family farmers and family fishermen whose total debts do not exceed a certain dollar limit. The current dollar limit is $4.4 million, but there is legislation awaiting President Trump’s signature to increase the limit to $10 million. In large part because of these restrictions, Chapter 12 is one of the least commonly used forms of bankruptcy.
When you don’t want to move, you don’t want to move. That’s the message being sent to Secretary Perdue and the leadership of the USDA by employees of the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS), who recently voted to unionize 138 to 4.
ERS produces research on agriculture and rural economies that is used by policymakers in determining where to prioritize federal money, personnel, and attention. Many universities and agricultural organizations also utilize the data in their own research. Economists and statisticians make up a large portion of ERS’s staff.
The vote comes after months of tension over the fate of ERS. USDA leaders have been seriously discussing moving the headquarters of ERS closer to the farms and rural areas that it is charged with researching, and away from D.C. Recently the USDA announced that locations in Indiana near Purdue University, in Kansas City, and in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Region have been selected as potential relocation sites. However, many ERS staffers have been vocal about not wanting to move away from D.C., either for personal reasons or to protect the prestige of the office within the USDA.
Further, Secretary Perdue had announced plans last year to place the service directly under the USDA’s chief economist, which would put ERS more directly under the watch of administrators appointed by President Trump. Some staffers have expressed concerns that such a move could increase the pressure to analyze data in a particular way, and reduce the service’s independence.
According to news interviews, as conversations among the higher level administrators became more serious, many ERS employees felt that they did not have much say in the matter. This sense of helplessness triggered many employees to want to unionize, while some employees have already left in pursuit of other jobs.
The right of most federal employees to unionize is protected under federal law, but the preliminary vote was not the final stop in the process. The vote to unionize had to be reviewed by the National Labor Relations Authority, which governs public-sector labor relations. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) has already begun to represent the roughly 200 workers at ERS. AFGE represents approximately 700,000 employees of the federal government and of the District of Columbia, with just under half of those members paying dues. AFGE is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which is the nation’s largest federation of labor unions.
The formation of a union does not mean that ERS employees will be able to prevent the changes being proposed at the administrative level. However, it increases the likelihood that ERS employees have a seat at the decision table as a united group. This desire to have a united front and collectively bargain is one of the traditional purposes of forming a union.
Written by Evin Bachelor, Law Fellow, OSU Extension Agricultural & Resource Law Program
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced last week that farmers.gov will now feature two new tools. One will help farmers navigate the application process for obtaining temporary agricultural workers under H-2A, and the second will help farmers understand and manage their USDA-backed farm loans. The press release explained that the USDA values the experience of its customers, and that it developed these tools after hearing feedback on the need for simple, technology based resources to help farmers. Unveiled in 2018, farmers.gov allows users to apply for USDA programs, process transactions, and manage their accounts.
Customized H-2A checklists based on the needs of an individual farmer
Many farmers need seasonal or temporary workers for planting, cultivating, and harvesting crops. The seasonal nature of agriculture can make it difficult for farmers to find an adequate supply of domestic labor willing to fill the temporary positions. To relieve this difficulty, the federal government created the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program to allow these farmers to hire workers from foreign countries to supplement the domestic labor market on a temporary or seasonal basis. Farmers must demonstrate that there are not enough U.S. workers able, willing, qualified, and available for the temporary work, and that the H-2A workers will not result in reduced wages for other U.S. workers.
Understanding the H-2A process has long been complex and confusing, but a new tool focused on education for smaller producers includes a revamped website and an interactive checklist tool. The new website explains the basics of the program, includes an interactive checklist tool to create custom checklists, and gives an estimate of the costs of hiring H-2A workers.
The interactive checklist tool is a helpful way for producers to learn about the steps they need to take to obtain the labor that they need. In the past, websites would rely heavily on producers to sift through information and determine the requirements that they needed to follow. Now, the interactive tool asks questions one at a time to generate a custom checklist.
When using the tool, producers will first be asked whether this will be their first time hiring workers using the H-2A Visa Program. If the producer answers yes, they will be asked when they need the labor. If the producer answers no to the first question, they will be asked whether they are extending the contract of workers that they are currently employing. Ultimately, the producer will be asked when they need the labor. At the end of the questions, the tool will provide a checklist that the producer will use to determine what steps he or she needs to take to obtain H-2A labor. The checklists are designed to be easy to understand and to make the process less confusing.
View information about your USDA-backed farm loan online
The USDA offers farm ownership and operating loans through the Farm Services Agency to family-size farmers and ranchers who cannot obtain commercial credit. Farmers.gov now allows producers to view information about these USDA-backed farm loans through a secure online account. Producers can view loan information, history, and payments from a desktop computer, tablet, or smartphone. Producers will need to sign up for a USDA online account in order to create an account profile with a password.
At this time, the program only allows producers doing business on their own behalf as individuals to view this information through farmers.gov. Other entities such as LLCs and trusts or producers acting on behalf of another cannot utilize this tool yet, although the USDA indicates that this is planned for in the future.
The USDA’s press release made clear that the addition of these tools represents a step toward providing better customer service and increased transparency. As only a step, producers can expect more tools and features to be added to farmers.gov in the future. As this happens, we will be sure to keep you up to date about the website’s new bells and whistles.