Abstract: Essential (Guest)Workers: Contemporary Trends in H-2 Temporary Employment Programs in the USA (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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748P Essential (Guest)Workers: Contemporary Trends in H-2 Temporary Employment Programs in the USA

Tuesday, January 19, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Jennifer Scott, PhD, LMSW, Assistant Professor, Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, LA
Bethany Boggess Alcauter, MPH, Research & Evaluation Manager, National Center for Farmworker Health
Chelsey Wooten, MA, PhD student/Graduate Research Assistant/BSW Lecturer, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA
Background. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of essential workers in sectors such as food production and healthcare who are critical to collective survival. Historically, the U.S. has used temporary work visa programs to help fill labor needs in these sectors, the most well-known being the long running Bracero agreement to import Mexican agricultural workers during the World Wars. The contemporary H-2 visa program was created after the end of second Bracero program to fill labor force needs in positions that did not require advanced education. Two types of H-2 visas exist: H-2A for agricultural work and H-2B for non-agricultural work, and both have a maximum duration of 1-3 years. Expansion of the temporary guestworker programs has been proposed across ideologies as a potential “solution” to undocumented immigration.

Despite the reliance on over 400,000 temporary guestworkers to perform essential work and calls to expand the program, few studies have examined the program and how it has changed over time. Additionally, H2A workers are not included in the biannual National Agricultural Workers Survey, and no national survey of H-2B workers exists. This study aims to provide a comprehensive analysis of trends in H-2A and H-2B positions by using employer disclosure data, examining both broad trends in population and recruitment as well as variations by sector and region.

Methods. The Department of Labor (DOL) Office of Foreign Labor Certification publishes information on employer requests for temporary workers quarterly and then aggregates them each fiscal year in publicly available disclosure datafiles. We used public disclosure data from 2008 to 2019 to examine trends in total recruitment and variation by visa type, location, occupation and employer type. We additionally examined changes in real wages over the same period using consumer price index to adjust values to 2019 dollars. All analyses were conducted in Stata 16.

Results. Over the last decade, the number of temporary H-2A guestworker applications certified has increased by 45% to over 187,000. Parallel to this, the number of H-2B applications certified has declined by 50%, from 255 to 150 thousand. The same period saw a decline in average hourly wage for H-2A workers from $14 to $12 and a more substantial rise in hourly wages for H2B workers from $15 to $21. Aggregate wages mask significant variations by occupation and region, however. H-2A wages range from under $5 for processors to $18 for supervisors and H-2B from $7 to $61 for recreation managers.

Implications. This analysis of temporary guestworker programs through employer reported data is a first step to understanding how many employers have found labor for essential jobs in agriculture, food production, and other industries over the last decade. Future research should examine the relationship between industry demand and macroeconomic factors, as well as collect primary data from guestworkers themselves. Investigations exploring how reliance on temporary guestworkers to perform essential work has changed over time will improve our understanding of whether calls for expanding the guestworker program are the answer to fixing the broken immigration system.