The old saying, “the customer is always right” may hold true as a best practice for business, but it just rarely seems to apply to services provided by the government. In my many conversations with farmers in Central Washington, it is clear that one of the biggest challenges they face remains the availability of labor. If the current federal H-2A legal agriculture labor program were compared to a restaurant, then farmers would be frustrated customers demanding to speak with the management, not because they are finnicky eaters, but due to the poor service they typically receive. It is no secret that the current H-2A program is cumbersome and operates inefficiently for their businesses, which rely on consistent and reliable labor.
I have worked and continue to work to improve the system. The Fiscal Year 2019 House Agriculture Appropriations Bill included my amendment to encourage streamlining of government and provide better customer service by directing the appropriate federal agencies to move forward on an online portal to process H-2A applications.
Just last week, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the launch of new features on www.Farmers.gov to help customers manage their farm loans and navigate the application process for H-2A visas. The feature includes “an interactive checklist tool, with application requirements, fees, forms, and a timeline built around a farmer’s hiring needs” according to the announcement. The best part: this is only phase one of the improvements. USDA also committed to working with other federal agencies in the coming months to continue collaboration to further improve the H-2A application form, regulations, and digital application process.
These new online features follow work by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to help farmers advertise job openings to domestic workers as required under the H-2A program. Currently, if a farmer petitions for workers, he or she must send multiple applications to multiple different agencies, often on paper, to complete the application process. DOL is working to require that employers seeking to hire temporary workers post the employment opportunities online, which is in line with today’s modern recruitment practices for employers and job seekers as well as reducing employers’ recruitment costs.
Broader reforms to improve the H-2A program are still needed, and I am committed to working with my colleagues on solutions to improve the government’s ‘customer service.’ The creation of an online navigation tool is one important step to reduce farmers’ and growers’ frustration.
Congressman Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside serves the 4th Congressional District in Washington, D.C.