The Labor Department is proposing to overhaul wage requirements and streamline the application certification process for the H-2A farmworker visa program, which is under heavy demand by growers across the country. 

A 489-page notice of proposed rulemaking posted by the Labor Department Monday lays out a series of changes aimed at making the program easier for farmers to use. 

The proposals include changes to the methodology used to determine the “adverse effect wage rates,” which impose a floor under H-2A wage and modified requirements for rental housing and public accommodations. The wage rate has skyrocketed recently in some states. 

The H-2A application process would be streamlined by by mandating electronic filing of job orders and applications, promoting the use of digital signatures, and allowing employers to stagger the entry of H-2A workers who are approved on a single application. 

“The proposed rule will increase access to a reliable legal agricultural workforce, easing unnecessary burdens on farmers, increase enforcement against fraud and abuse, all while maintaining protections for America’s workers,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. 

“When this rule goes into effect, our farmers will be released from unnecessary and burdensome regulations allowing them to do what they do best.”

Michael Marsh, President and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, said his group is "very pleased the administration has agreed to roll out this much needed modernization effort for the H-2A program. It is obvious, based upon the 489 pages included, the deep dive that was done by the agencies in their effort to evolve the program to one more responsive to the needs of stakeholders.”

The Labor Department also would expand the eligible H-2A jobs to include reforestation and pine straw activities. 

The department will take public comment on the proposal after it is published in the Federal Register.

Some 242,762 H-2A positions were approved in fiscal 2018, up from 82,000 in 2008.

The Labor Department certified 88,000 positions for H-2A farmworkers during the quarter that ended March 31, an increase of 8,000 over the same quarter a year earlier. The 10% was the smallest increase for a second quarter in five years, but that may have been due to a slowdown in processing, according to an analysis by the American Farm Bureau Federation