A recent report points out that while immigrant workers play a vital role in U.S. agriculture, some sectors continue to struggle more than others. The seasonal workers made available through work visa programs help mitigate the impact of a dwindling domestic labor supply. However, the meat and dairy industries face the most challenges, according to research from the American Immigration Council (AIC).
“Meat and dairy employers rely on the H-2A and H-2B visa programs to fill jobs they are unable to fill with American workers. While these visa programs provide a temporary solution by supplying seasonal foreign workers, ultimately, they do not meet the needs of these non-seasonal industries,” AIC Research Director Andrew Lim said in a press release. “As workers reach retirement age and leave the workforce, the meat and dairy industries will be increasingly hard-pressed to find enough workers to meet demands.”
The tight labor market is forcing meat and dairy operations to compete for workers with significantly inflated wages compared to average hourly wages. The report, “Tending to America’s Food Supply: The Essential Role of Immigrants in America’s Meat and Dairy Industries,” notes that wages have increased nearly 34 percent over the past three years for meat and dairy workers. At the same time, the U.S. median wage has increased by less than 8 percent.
Substantial demand for labor is coming from Texas, California, Iowa, and North Carolina. Those four states have the largest number of employment postings for meat and dairy workers. Industry groups have been calling for expanding the current visa system to extend beyond just seasonal workers. Less than ten percent of H-2A workers and only one percent of H-2B workers were employed in the meat and dairy sectors in the fiscal year 2021.
“If the United States is to stabilize its food workforce and prices, it should consider expanding temporary work visa programs and implementing other long-term employment-based immigration reforms,” said Lim. “This includes providing a path to citizenship for millions of the undocumented farmworkers in the U.S. today to address the labor needs of the meat and dairy industries and the agricultural sector more broadly.”