Is the H-2B Program Less Bad than the H-2A Program?

By David North on April 13, 2022

The question of the relative social utility of the H-2A and H-2B programs came to light recently in a federal court case, a subject to which we will return.

The question is a relative one, given that all foreign worker programs, always written for (and to some extent by) employers, are generally harmful to the nation. But is one of these two programs for low-skilled workers better (or less bad) than the other?

The answer is yes, with the H-2B program being better in three ways than H-2A. The former program is for low-skilled non-agricultural work both outdoors and indoors, while the H-2A program is specifically for farm work. Here are the comparisons:

  • H-2B requires that workers be paid overtime, as H-2A does not;
  • H-2B requires payments to our Social Security and Medicare trust funds, H-2A does not; and
  • H-2B has a nominal upper limit on the jobs lost by Americans, and though the limit is frequently raised by the government, as my colleague Rob Law pointed out recently, H-2A has no limits at all, and routinely involves many more workers than H-2B.

These differences probably stem from the greater political power of agribusiness, which uses H-2A, than that of the landscapers and resort operations, which use H-2B.

All of this came to light recently when a group of savvy turf farm workers sued their employer, Briggs Traditional Turf Farm, in Missouri’s federal courts on the grounds that they should not have been classified as H-2As, they should be H-2Bs, and should be paid time-and-a-half for overtime.

Turf farms, unlike beef or wheat farms, are more likely to be in or near metropolitan areas, as their product is the sod used in suburban yards and golf courses. If one happens on one just before the sod is harvested, one might think he is looking at an enormous, lush, green lawn. After the harvest, there is nothing but dirt, perhaps highly fertile dirt.

The court case is ongoing.