Federal agency gives meatpackers room to hire H-2B workers

Rule change seeks to help food and agriculture industries retain foreign workers

A Bell & Evans truck turns into its poultry processing facility on in Bethel Township, Pa., on May 1. (Jeremy Long/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
A Bell & Evans truck turns into its poultry processing facility on in Bethel Township, Pa., on May 1. (Jeremy Long/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
Posted May 13, 2020 at 10:34am

The Trump administration plans a temporary change to rules on H-2B guest workers to help beleaguered meatpacking plants keep those foreign employees in the United States as the companies deal with absenteeism and workers quarantined because of COVID-19 exposure.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a part of the Homeland Security Department, is scheduled to put the temporary rule change into effect on Thursday.

The rule is set to last through May 15, 2023, to allow meat and poultry companies to rehire current H-2B employees whose work contracts or three-year visas are expiring. The companies also would be able to hire other H-2B workers with expiring visas who otherwise would have to return to their home countries. Employers and workers have until Sept. 11 this year to enter into new work contracts.

H-2B guest workers often have jobs in landscaping, forestry, hotel cleaning and amusement parks, in addition to meat and poultry plants. 

USCIS offered no estimate as to how many H-2B workers would be affected by the rule change. Would-be employers must submit petitions and Labor Department temporary labor certifications to the Department of Homeland Security. The U.S. offers 66,000 H-2B visas per fiscal year, with half available Oct. 1 through March 31 and the remaining half available April 1 through Sept. 30.

Workers with expired H-2B visas are generally required to spend three consecutive months out of the U.S. before applying for a new visa.

The new rule would be the second time Homeland Security and the administration have adjusted regulations to help the food and agriculture industries retain foreign workers. In April, the department issued a temporary final rule to allow farmers facing delays in getting petitions approved for foreign agricultural labor to hire farm workers holding H-2A visas and already in the United States.

On April 28, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that invoked the Defense Production Act, declared the processing and packing plants part of the nation’s critical infrastructure and said the plants are to follow nonbinding guidelines to limit the spread of COVID-19 among workers. The guidelines were issued April 26 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.  

According to the Department of Homeland Security, the final rule Thursday will say that “DHS is committed both to protecting U.S. workers and to helping U.S. businesses receive the documented and work-authorized workers to perform temporary nonagricultural services or labor that they need to mitigate the adverse impact of COVID-19 on the U.S. food supply chain.”

The department said H-2B temporary nonagricultural workers are essential to the food supply chain in processing, manufacturing, packaging, transporting and selling human and animal food.

“In the wake of uncertainty inherent in confronting and responding to a public health emergency of this magnitude, DHS is taking steps to ensure that employers who have needs for temporary nonagricultural workers who provide stability to the nation’s food supply chain have greater certainty and flexibility to minimize gaps in the flow of H-2B workers,” the department wrote.

Meat and poultry plants faced challenges in keeping people on the processing lines before COVID-19, North American Meat Institute CEO Julie Anna Potts told a Bipartisan Policy Center forum on Tuesday.

“The harvesting of animals and the processing of meat is a very labor-intensive activity,” Potts said, adding that among challenges for the industry "the top one or two would be the workforce and the ability to keep people.”