The Labor Department planned Wednesday to propose changes to the foreign agriculture worker program, among them how the base wages for H2-A visa holders are determined. Streamlining the hiring process for H2-A visa holders could help turn employers away from hiring illegal workers, officials said.
Right now, the base pay for H2-A agriculture workers is set by the Agriculture Department's Farm Labor Survey and varies by state. Within a state, the pay is the same regardless of what job a worker performs.
However, the Labor Department wants to use the Bureau of Labor Statistic's Occupational Employment Survey, which would allow officials to consider what workers do and their skill levels. It also would allow officials to divide the country into more than 530 areas and to pay wages appropriate to each area.
"Because of the increased precision, there are going to be wages that will likely decrease," said Leon R. Sequeira, an assistant secretary for policy at the Labor Department. "There also are wages that are going to increase."
Under the H-2A program, farmers may apply to bring in foreign workers if they can show the supply of U.S. workers is inadequate. The new regulations, which were to be proposed by the Labor, Homeland Security and Agriculture departments, would be the first changes to the H-2A visa system in 20 years.
More than half of U.S. farm workers admit on Labor Department surveys that they are not legally authorized to work. Some groups believe it's actually about 70 percent.
Employers consider the H2-A program burdensome and many hire undocumented workers rather than use it. Critics say employers don't like the program's wage, housing and other requirements. Labor officials plan to change the application process to make it easier for employers to hire foreign farm workers.
Congress failed to pass immigration changes last year, ending plans to provide workers — some already in the country illegally and some who would come from abroad — through guest worker and legalization programs.
"The current program is cumbersome and difficult to use for farmers and ranchers trying to do the right thing," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. "I am pleased the administration is taking action to streamline and modernize the program and I look forward to working with them on a final product."
Sharon Hughes, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, said the regulations should be revisited "to make them more workable for the current agriculture situation."
The H-2A system requires that above-average wages — called the adverse effect wage rate — be paid to those workers.
"Employers that bring in guest workers should not be allowed to undercut the average wage by paying a lower amount," said Bruce Goldstein, executive director of Farmworker Justice, which advocates for farmworkers. "We'll need to look closely at this proposal to make sure farmworkers will not be hurt by these wage changes."
In 2007, the highest adverse effect wage rate was $10.32 in Hawaii and the lowest was $8.27 in Arizona. In North Carolina, where the largest number of H-2A visas are issued, the adverse effect wage rate was $9.02.
The federal minimum wage is $5.85 an hour. The highest state minimum wage is in Washington state at $8.07 an hour.