The U.S. Department of Agriculture is offering grants to help agricultural employers hire H-2A workers from the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

The Farm Labor Stabilization and Protection Pilot Program offers up to $65 million in American Rescue Plan funding for growers who agree to recruit their new H-2A workers for the 2024 season from the so-called Northern Triangle nations.

Growers can use the grant money to cover costs related to recruitment or onboarding, wages and administrative costs for managing the H-2A program and certain housing maintenance costs. 

The stated goals of the program are to address current labor shortages in agriculture, expand legal pathways for migration from the region and improve working conditions for all farmworkers. 

However, the money comes with an extra layer of labor protections beyond existing H-2A rules enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor. To be eligible, employers must do the following:

—Provide statistics and documentation for USDA research. The information will be kept anonymous, the USDA said. 

—Conduct “Know Your Rights” resource training for all employees.

—Disclose all domestic and international recruiting practices and recruiting contractors and subcontractors. 

To be eligible, employers do not have to recruit all of their new workers from the Northern Triangle region, according to the application form, but applications from those that do will be more competitive.

Awards will range between $25,000 and $2 million depending on the number of employees and the “commitment level.” To access higher tiers of funding, employers must make several supplemental employee commitments from a list of options that exceed state and federal requirements, such as overtime pay, paid sick leave and participation in a social-responsibility program or collective bargaining agreement. 

Last year, during the public comment period, the Northwest Horticultural Council objected to the concept of expanding worker protection rules through this grant program. “By imposing additional requirements, (the USDA Farm Service Agency) would be establishing a different labor standard for workers based on their immigration status and country of origin,” wrote the council, which represents fruit growers from Washington, Oregon and Idaho in matters of federal policy and international trade.

The grant application deadline is Nov. 28.

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by Ross Courtney