Misunderstanding How H-2A Works

Many, including those in Washington state, seem to misunderstand what the H-2A guestworker visa program is and how it works.

Pam Lewison, the Washington Policy Center’s Ag Director, says many believe H-2A workers take jobs that would otherwise be filled by locals, but the way H-2A works.

“You have to advertise for a minimum of 60-days ahead of your first date of hire, and effectively prove to the U.S. Department of Labor that there is a labor shortage in your area, as in, there are no people who are able-bodied, have the ability or the desire to work for you.” 

Then, Lewison says, if you make your case, you can apply for H-2A workers with stipulations.

“For 50 percent of that contract, so however long they’re here. If they are here for 6 months, for 3 months after your H-2A workers arrive, you have to give preference to local hires. So, if you have 50 H-2A workers and 50 people from town show up at some point during that first three months, you must sit your H-2A workers out and hire the local 50 people while still paying the 50 H-2A workers.” 

Lewison says another common myth is that the H-2A program brings wages down.

“Now, if you know anything about the H-2A program, it is intended to be cost-prohibitive on purpose. And part of the cost-prohibitive nature is the Adverse Effect Wage Rate which is effectively the minimum wage that you can pay an H-2A worker.” 

And this year in Washington state, Lewison says that wage is $19.25 per hour.

“That is the LEAST amount of money that you can pay not only an H-2A worker but any local employee working alongside that H-2A workers doing the same job.” 

But in the field, Lewison says the wages seem to get pushed even higher.

“So, while we have an anecdotal wage of about $23.50, what is causing that wage to increase so far is that minimum threshold of the $19.25 because no one is going to show up for the state minimum wage of $16 if they can go somewhere else and earn $3 more just because there is someone there who has a visa.” 

Lewison says what we’ve seen in agriculture is wages are artificially increased significantly rather than being depressed as some recent legislation suggests.