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What's being done to make sure there are workers to pick crops
A farm worker picks early strawberries at Jaemor Farms in Alto in this Times file photo.

Crops need to be harvested, but the COVID-19 pandemic is restricting the travel of seasonal workers.

Many farms rely on the H-2A program to legally bring foreign workers to fill temporary agricultural jobs. Now, that program may need flexibility to provide enough labor for farms.

“It’s absolutely critical,” U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, said. “We’re getting into Vidalia onion season. We’re getting into blueberries, strawberries. And we don’t have the workers that we need to also produce lettuce and the other things that are coming in now. It’s very important. … If we can’t get the crop out of the field, then we’re just as bad as not being able to have a crop at all.  

Drew Echols, farm manager at Jaemor Farms in Alto, said many farmers around the state depend on the H-2A program during harvest, and that he knows several farmers who will be stretched thin for labor if the regulations are not made more flexible. Jaemor has used H-2A in the past, which requires employers show American workers are not available.

Collins sent a letter in mid-March to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo regarding the delays many prospective H-2A employees have experienced in acquiring visas.

Georgia Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue have also stressed the importance of more flexibility in the program and sent a letter to U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Eugen Scalia and U.S. Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf.

“Our nation is working around the clock to address the COVID-19 crisis, and our farmers are on the front lines of our country’s response,” the senators wrote in an April 8 letter. “We must ensure that our farmers can continue to rely on the H-2A program during this time.”

The senators advised three main adjustments to the program. 

First, that H-2A workers at the end of a contract period be allowed to extend the contract if they can’t return home due to travel restrictions. 

Second, that the maximum length of H-2A visas be increased to mitigate the effect of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services center closures.

And third, that H-2A employers be allowed to temporarily share workers among farms “until the federal government is able to resume normal operations.”

The letter was also signed by senators from Tennessee, Arkansas, North Carolina, Texas, Idaho, Montana, Arizona, Kansas and South Dakota.

Collins said he was encouraged to see Loeffler and Perdue getting on board in support of adjusting H-2A regulations. 

“Everybody needs to be a part of this,” Collins said. “I’m glad to see they’re jumping on this as well.” 

Echols said he agrees with the proposed changes.

“It’s a common sense fix to a problem all over the state of Georgia,” he said. “It’s going to help Georgia producers. It’s going to give them some certainty about harvesting their crops this year.”