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Despite High Unemployment Rates, US Farms Sought More Migrant Workers This Year

Despite COVID-19 risks and high unemployment rates last year, employers wanted to fill more jobs filled with H-2A guest workers in 2020.

Usually, high unemployment rates decrease the demand for H-2A workers. Diane Charlton, a professor of agricultural economics at Montana State University, says a 1% increase in a state’s unemployment rate is associated with a 5% decrease in demand for H-2A workers, according to a recent study. She says that trend didn't hold up in 2020. 

“Likely workers are taking multiple jobs on a single visa with more frequency this year than in previous years, in part because the regulations on H-2A visas changed temporarily,” Charlton said in an email statement.

The U.S. Department of Labor certified the applications of 13,552 farm employers to fill 275,430 jobs with H-2A workers in Fiscal Year 2020, which is an increase in both employers and jobs. The Rural Migration News Blog from the University of California Davis reports 258,000 jobs were certified in 2019.

H-2A farmworkers, who are hired to help with seasonal harvests, make up 10% of farmworkers in the United States. 

Charlton says sick workers present a significant risk for the labor market and lost income for farmers.

“If there's an outbreak of COVID-19 in my workforce, and I'm a farmer, I have to figure out how to get that crop harvested,” Charlton says.

Jayson Lusk, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University, says areas with farmworkers were hit harder by the coronavirus. He says COVID-19 could continue to affect migrant farmworkers this year. 

“How coronavirus affects the ability to move across borders, particularly Mexico, is going to be something to keep an eye on,” he says. 

Correction: The original version of this story stated that high unemployment rates as a result of COVID-19 were likely to lower the number H-2A visas, which historically had been the case. Shortly before the story was published, the researcher received new information that despite high unemployment rates there were more H-2A visas in 2020 compared to the previous year. This story has been updated.

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