Access to labor was a concern for Ohio’s food and agriculture sectors before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic which brought more volatility to the food supply chain. In April 2021, the federal government moved to bolster the available labor supply by increasing the number of available H-2B (non-agricultural) visas.
A new report, Ohio’s H-2A and H-2B workforce: An update, by Margaret Jodlowski, Assistant Professor in The College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences Department of Agricultural, Environmental & Development Economics, says the move offers a temporary solution but doesn’t address a long-term resolution to ongoing labor shortages.
“This increase is far less than the requested number of H-2B visas for the first half of FY2021,” says Jodlowski. “Labor supply access is likely to remain a significant area of concern for both agricultural and non-agricultural operations.”
H-2A and H-2B are both visa programs that offer U.S. employers the opportunity to hire noncitizens for temporary work in agricultural and non-agricultural positions, respectively. Food processors, including meatpackers and poultry processors, hire workers through the H-2B program rather than H-2A; this is important because while there is no limit on the number of H-2A visas issued, H-2B visas are subject to a cap. In a typical year, meaning one without the disruptions that characterized the pandemic, the cap for H-2B was set at 66,000 workers, split evenly between the two halves of the fiscal year. Demand for these visas routinely exceeds this cap.
The most recently available data on state-level H-2B participation comes from requests made during the first quarter of FY2021: October 2020 through December 2020. Ohio businesses requested 522 H-2B positions during this quarter, of which 413 (79%) were certified.
Jodlowski adds that the true extent to which there is unmet demand for labor on farms or in agricultural processing positions is still unknown.
Even though H-2A positions are not capped, there are many features that make the program unappealing. The process for filing a petition involves a not-insignificant amount of time, or the services of an agency that prepares the materials on behalf of an operation. These requirements mean that larger operations, and especially those with dedicated HR personnel, are more likely to be able to take advantage of these programs and therefore secure the workers they need.
“Many operations were already deterred due to either due to the time or expense involved in filing a petition or hiring an agency to prepare the materials on behalf of an operation.
Jodlowski says measures such as temporarily raising the cap on H-2B workers and providing additional flexibility for workers who are already in the country are valuable, they are, of course, only temporary. As such, it remains imperative that continued progress is made towards a solution, legislative, programmatic, or otherwise, that connects US operations with workers and workers with these critically important jobs.
Dr. Margaret Jodlowski
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