By Frank Giles
With all of the H-2A visa program’s challenges and expenses, I am always impressed by the number of specialty crop growers who depend on it to source reliable labor. For many, it is the only option. And for those who have mastered all of its intricacies, it is even described as a good program.
But one part of the program that is alarming all users is its escalating costs. This is mainly due to the program’s adverse effect wage rate (AEWR), which has increased dramatically in states where the program is vital to securing production and harvest of perishable crops.
In Georgia, the AEWR for 2024 has been set at $14.66 per hour for H-2A workers. The new rate represents a 7% increase year over year. The rate has increased by 21% in the last two years. Since 2011, the AEWR rates for Georgia have risen 49%. Georgia’s percentage increase for 2024 was surpassed only by Alaska.
The Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association (GFVGA) has been working with its congressional delegation to meet with officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to get more clarity on how the AEWR is established. But, to date, the association notes there are still more questions than answers when it comes to the wage rate.
The GFVGA noted in a legislative alert: “Regardless of the methodology (of setting the AEWR), Georgia growers are now faced with yet another wage increase. Coupled with complexity of and administrative costs to use the program, the escalating wage increases are making the program unaffordable to growers who depend on H-2A workers to produce the fresh fruits and vegetables that feed our nation.”
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr also has called on the DOL to provide more clarity on how the AEWR is established and for a pause of scheduled rate increases. In his inquiry to the DOL, he noted: “The lack of transparency concerning the methodology can only lead our constituents to reasonably assume these mandated wage increases were established arbitrarily and without regard to the wellbeing of Georgia farmers. Therefore, we ask for information on what methodology and raw data were used to justify the substantial wage increase and the discrepancy between the proposed AEWR and private sector rates.”
These wage jumps are a big deal. In Georgia, the increase is estimated to cost growers an additional $150 million in wages. What’s more, the wage hikes come with short notice. In this month’s cover story, L&M’s Adam Lytch recalls last year’s wage jump being made after most of the farm’s crops had been planted, leaving no time for adjustments. Georgia is not alone in facing this H-2A wage rate crisis.
The AEWR was established to protect domestic workers from foreign labor taking available jobs here at home. But at the farm level, it is clear that domestic workers have no interest in taking these jobs. Until we have reliable robots and automation to do these jobs, H-2A will remain a critical part of our nation’s food security. We need to see to it that the program provides protections for these workers but also is affordable for Southeastern specialty crop growers to use.