Farmers across Kentucky and the nation already wrestle with nature, facing headaches and unpredictability. As if that isn't difficult enough, they also face frustration and bureaucratic delays in hiring enough workers to keep their businesses running.
Farms and related industries rely on seasonal, temporary labor, which they obtain through the H-2A and H-2B temporary worker visa programs. The problem is, these programs are antiquated and in desperate need of modernization. They are rife with unnecessary red tape and bureaucratic obstacles that prevent the Kentucky agriculture community from hiring and retaining the workers they need.
I've heard this directly from Kentuckians, and after discussions with many of these farmers and others throughout the greater agriculture community, I've proposed a solution.
This week, I introduced my Paperwork Reduction for Farmers and H-2A Modernization Act, which would provide much-needed regulatory relief by reducing red tape and streamlining temporary agriculture worker visa programs. It reforms the outdated H-2A application system, alleviating unnecessary bureaucratic delays, and also allows certain categories of temporary workers currently under the capped H-2B program, such as those in the equine and livestock industries, to apply through the uncapped H-2A program.
Both the H-2A (agriculture workers) and H-2B (non-agriculture workers) programs strive to meet legitimate employer needs for temporary labor and require employers to certify there are insufficient workers who are U.S. citizens before applying for the temporary worker programs. While there is no cap on the number of visas issued under H-2A, there is an annual cap of 66,000 visas issued under H-2B.
This restriction has caused many farms and businesses in need of livestock, poultry, dairy, and equine workers--as well as those in supporting jobs, such as landscapers and groundskeepers--to suffer, as these workers are locked into the H-2B program. These caps and bureaucratic paperwork hoops have left employers under both programs frustrated and unable to hire and retain the workers they need when they need them.
Modernizing and simplifying the application process is imperative to the Kentucky agriculture community. My bill not only requires the Department of Labor (DOL) to create an online application process, but it also incentivizes temporary workers to follow the terms of their visa by rewarding them with expedited approvals the next time they apply. Considering that most employers tend to hire returning workers, this helps ensure approval for many of them, pending necessary security checks, and eliminates the uncertainty faced year after year when filing these applications.
Additionally, instead of using an impractical one-size-fits-all application, farmers will be allowed to apply for workers with staggered start and end dates on the same application. The government will also be required to promptly provide a reason for an application denial or delay to the employer and to provide a reasonable amount of time for the employer to remedy the problem.
This issue is something I've been working on for several years. In 2016, after listening to Christian County farmers, I worked directly with them to write legislation addressing their concerns, introduced a bill to streamline and fix the H-2A program, and reintroduced it in 2017. It's clear these efforts are important, as the Trump Administration has noted the need for reforms to the temporary worker visa programs. My hope is this bill will be guiding light for the Administration as it works to reform immigration standards and aid the agriculture community.
Since introducing the bill, I've heard from agriculture, livestock, equine, and landscaping leaders across Kentucky and the nation who are thrilled with the prospect of a reformed, streamlined program.
After years of leading the charge to enact necessary reforms to these programs, I am optimistic this bill will solve a critical issue for the Kentucky agriculture community, and I'm proud to continue my work on their behalf.