SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is threatening to worsen labor shortages experienced by Pacific Northwest farms and food processors.
On March 16, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico said it would suspend routine immigrant and non-immigrant visa services due to COVID-19, potentially cutting off seasonal and migrant agricultural workers through the H-2A visa program.
Dan Fazio, CEO of Wafla — formerly the Washington Farm Labor Association — told the Capital Press that the USDA is working with the State Department to obtain an emergency designation for H-2A visas, which would allow temporary farmworkers to continue entering the country.
"We've got to get these people here in May so we can have a harvest in October," Fazio said.
Washington state had over 25,000 H-2A labor certifications in 2019, which accounted for 25% of seasonal workers, Fazio said. So far this year, Wafla has brought in more than 5,000 H-2A workers, with the biggest wave still to come in late May for the start of cherry harvest.
Agriculture is a baseline industry, Fazio said, and any disruptions would trickle down throughout the economy.
Spring is also peak shipping season for Oregon's $995 million greenhouse and nursery industry. Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, said it is already difficult to find workers willing to package products and load trucks. With coronavirus potentially stalling the H-2A program, he said it only adds to the pressure.
"All this really shows is the fragility of the workforce," Stone said. “This adds a layer of worry. I feel for every business.”