Agriculture Labor Issues

Background

The U.S. pork industry is suffering from a serious labor shortage, negatively impacting farms and processing plants. This challenge undermines a critical economic sector that in recent years has driven employment and wage growth faster than the overall economy and is key to prosperity in rural America. The U.S. pork industry is largely dependent on foreign-born workers. But current visa programs fail to meet the workforce needs of U.S. pork producers and other year-round livestock farmers.

 

The H-2A visa program, created in 1987 under the Immigration Reform and Control Act, allows foreign nationals entry into the United States for temporary or seasonal agricultural work for up to 10 months. The U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division is responsible for auditing and inspecting H-2A employers to ensure guest workers are not exploited. Employers must provide H-2A guest workers with inbound and outbound transportation, housing and meals. Additionally, to be eligible for the H-2A program, employers must demonstrate a lack of U.S. workers able, willing and qualified for the jobs.

 

Because it is designed for seasonal agriculture, the H-2A visa program can’t meet the workforce needs of livestock farmers. Without visa reform to support a viable, year-round workforce, U.S. pork production will be constrained, leading to higher food prices for consumers. Despite paying wages significantly above local prevailing wage rates, hog farms and packing plants could shut down if the shortage of labor is not addressed, causing serious financial harm to the communities in which they operate.

 

In addition to available workers outside of the United States, experienced foreign-born agricultural workers are often already in U.S. communities but unemployable because of their immigration status. By extending multi-year status to those already in rural America, farms and packing plants may be able to cover some of the labor shortage with easily accessible and experienced labor, without the costs associated with bringing in overseas workers. It’s important to note that U.S. pork and other livestock production jobs will not be filled by U.S. citizens because of decreases in rural population growth, where most farms and packing plants are located. Economists with Iowa State University, using a study from USDA’s Economic Research Service, determined that native-born workers and permanent residents currently cannot offset the need for foreign-born labor.

NPPC's Position

NPPC supports visa system reform that provides agricultural employers with sustained access to year-round labor and a pathway to legal status for those with agricultural experience already in the United States. H-2A expansion to year-round labor is clearly needed to ensure that U.S. livestock agriculture can compete globally and continue to provide safe and affordable pork to Americans and consumers worldwide. NPPC also supports inclusion of packing plant work as agricultural labor.

Fast Facts

  • Hog farm employment growth has declined in recent years despite growing labor needs and rising wages, falling by0.3% from 2019 to 2020 while average weekly wages increased by 5.7%.
  • In most top hog-producing states, unemployment rates are well below the national rate while labor force participation rates are higher, with 8 of 10 currently having rates below 4%.
  • Compared with urban counties, rural counties’ labor markets are tighter because of declining populations and rising ages.

Additional Resources

Visa Reform: Labor Shortage in the U.S. Pork Industry