The pandemic of a new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, has shuttered businesses and forced many Americans to work from home. But foreign agricultural workers, classified as essential personnel, continue to toil in fields and meat processing plants despite their susceptibility to the virus. Even as President Donald J. Trump has sought to limit both legal and illegal immigration, his administration has issued new policies and executive orders that keep these laborers—many of whom are seasonal workers or undocumented immigrants, according to government and industry estimates—on the job, raising questions about their mistreatment and the stability of food supply chains.
What role do foreign workers play in U.S. agriculture?
Foreign laborers are the backbone of U.S. agriculture, accounting for roughly 70 percent of field hands and nearly 30 percent of meat and poultry workers in recent years. The industry relies on more than one million hired farmworkers and much of this workforce is in the country illegally, though hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers, predominantly those from Mexico, receive temporary work visas each year.
Specifically, these are known as the H2A and H2B visa programs. H2A visas allow foreign farmhands to perform temporary jobs considered otherwise unfillable. A similar visa program, H2B, places foreigners in thousands of jobs [PDF] processing meat, poultry, and fish. These visas generally provide work for a maximum of one year, though they can be renewed. The programs have long drawn criticism for low pay and exploitative treatment of workers, who have few protections; U.S. agriculture firms say they are necessary to fill jobs Americans won’t take.
How has the coronavirus affected them?
Foreign agricultural workers are uniquely susceptible to the coronavirus, experts say, often laboring in close contact with others, sometimes without proper personal protective equipment (PPE). Workers often live in cramped housing where social distancing is impossible, and language barriers can prevent them from following federal health recommendations. The group’s demographics—mostly male and over forty years old, and many of whom are beset by health issues—have proven particularly susceptible to COVID-19.
There has been a spike of cases at meat processing facilities, which are often staffed by undocumented immigrants. Several plants owned by the country’s largest food conglomerates have been forced to temporarily close, reducing pork and beef production capacity by about one-fifth, according to some estimates.
Despite the dangers, foreign laborers have powerful incentives to continue working. Many are ineligible for unemployment benefits and must financially support relatives, leading to worries that those who become infected may not seek treatment. The situation is particularly acute for undocumented laborers, who face additional barriers to health care as well as the specter of deportation.
How has the Trump administration responded?
The Trump administration has sought to allow tens of thousands of foreign workers, even as it has moved to restrict other forms of immigration. The situation highlights the competing pressures Trump faces to secure the U.S. food supply by bringing in more guest workers while also preserving American jobs during a record increase in unemployment.
Last month, officials declared agricultural workers essential personnel [PDF], exempting them from bans on nonessential travel from other countries. Though most visa functions have been suspended, the processing of H2A and H2B visas continues. The administration eased restrictions on H2A visas, temporarily making it easier for visa holders to change employers and permitting them to remain in the country longer than the previous limit of three years. Trump had floated an executive order pausing all immigration, but the actual order is much narrower and exempts guest worker visas.
Other measures could squeeze foreign workers. Trump signed an executive order on April 28 requiring meat processing facilities to stay open, though the administration reportedly plans to provide guidance to ensure workers' safety. Officials are also reportedly considering cutting H2A wages, which are set by the government and currently stand at between $11 and $15 per hour. The reduction’s aim would be to relieve financial pressure on farmers hard hit by the pandemic, but critics say it could depress domestic wages.
Does the pandemic threaten the U.S. food supply chain?
The United States is unlikely to run out of food, experts say, but the coronavirus has thrown supply chains off-balance. In fact, there have been food gluts in some places, as suppliers for closed restaurants and schools lack connections to retail stores. As a result, some farmers without a market for their products have begun crushing eggs, dumping milk, and leaving fruits and vegetables to rot. Distributing food effectively, not producing more of it, is now the main issue.
Still, there are fears the shock could undermine agricultural production and make farm labor even more precarious. It comes at a poor time for produce farmers as they prepare for peak summer harvest season. Although some aspects of the food supply chain are mechanized, produce must often be handpicked to prevent damage. And even before the pandemic, there was a shortage of laborers to perform this work, driven by the steady decline in the numbers of workers coming from Mexico. By some estimates, this already costs the U.S. economy billions of dollars annually. Some growers worry that pandemic fears, economic disruptions, and visa delays could prevent guest-workers from coming to the United States, dramatically worsening the labor shortage.