WASHINGTON – Federal agencies are easing some restrictions on foreign guest workers to ensure an adequate supply of labor to the agriculture industry. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), announced a temporary final rule to change certain H-2A requirements.

“Under this temporary final rule, an H-2A petitioner with a valid temporary labor certification who is concerned that workers will be unable to enter the country due to travel restrictions can start employing certain foreign workers who are currently in H-2A status in the United States immediately after United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) receives the H-2A petition, but no earlier than the start date of employment listed on the petition,” DHS said. “To take advantage of this time-limited change in regulatory requirements, the H-2A worker seeking to change employers must already be in the United States and in valid H-2A status.”

Additionally, USCIS is allowing H-2A workers to stay beyond the three-year maximum allowable period of stay. The goal of adjusting these measures is to facilitate lawful employment of foreign temporary and seasonal agricultural workers during the pandemic. Major meat processors such as Tyson Foods Inc., Smithfield Foods Inc. and JBS USA recently closed some processing plants temporarily to limit spread of the coronavirus after workers tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

“This administration has determined that continued agricultural employment, currently threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic, is vital to maintaining and securing the country’s critical food supply chain,” said Chad F. Wolf, acting secretary of homeland security. “The temporary changes announced by USCIS provide the needed stability during this unprecedented crisis.”

The H-2A program allows employers who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs. DHS said agricultural employers should use the new process if they are concerned with their ability to bring in temporary workers with previous authorization to work for the employer in the H-2A program.

“USDA welcomes these additional flexibilities provided by the Department of Homeland Security today,” said Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. “Providing flexibility for H-2A employers to utilize H-2A workers that are currently in the United States is critically important as we continue to see travel and border restrictions as a result of COVID-19.

“USDA continues to work with the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Labor and the Department of State to minimize disruption and make sure farmers have access to these critical workers necessary to maintain the integrity in our food supply.”

The temporary final rule is effective immediately upon publication in the Federal Register, DHS said.

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