Employment:

Actions Needed to Improve the Transparency and Reliability of Labor's Data on the H-2A Program

GAO-13-144R: Published: Jul 2, 2013. Publicly Released: Jul 2, 2013.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Revae E. Moran
(202) 512-7215
moranr@gao.gov

 

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(202) 512-4800
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What GAO Found

The H-2A visa program allows U.S. employers that anticipate a shortage of domestic agricultural workers to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis. GAO issued a report on the process employers follow in applying for these workers and made several recommendations to the Department of Labor (Labor) for improving that process In pursuing work on that report, GAO found that the number of applications submitted by employers for H-2A worker positions, the number of H-2A worker positions requested, and the number of worker positions approved by Labor cited in Labor's annual reports from fiscal year 2006 and FY 2012 sometimes differed from the numbers reported by Labor in the data it makes available to the public on its website. GAO also found that much of the data Labor reported from applications submitted on behalf of multiple employers for this same period contained inconsistencies and that Labor lacked internal controls to monitor and prevent these inconsistencies. As a result, GAO was unable to rely on the data to draw conclusions about trends in usage of the H-2A program and, in some cases, found the data to be unreliable in terms of the number and identity of the employers seeking H-2A workers. Finally, GAO found that the new system Labor is using to allow employers to file their H-2A applications electronically, iCERT, does not contain data edit checks to ensure its accuracy. To inform users of the data's reliability and completeness and to improve the quality of future data, GAO recommends that Labor take steps to disclose the limitations of the H-2A data it posts on its website, and that Labor verify the data provided on multi-employer applications.

Why GAO Did This Study

In pursuing work requested by the Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, Poultry, Marketing, and Agriculture Security that resulted in the report noted above, GAO identified inconsistencies in the data reported by Labor on the H-2A program. This letter summarizes GAO's key findings on the reliability of the data.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that the Secretary of Labor direct the Assistant Secretary for Employment and Training to take the following actions:

1. Enhance the transparency of the data reported to the public on the H-2A program in the data files posted on Labor's website by disclosing the limitations of the data. For example, note that the number of H-2A positions requested by employers represents the number requested on their initial applications and does not consistently reflect later changes to the applications, such as increases or decreases in the number of positions requested, and that caution should be exercised in using the data to draw conclusions about trends in the H-2A program.

2. Enhance the validity of the data reported in the data files posted to its website on multi-employer applications by collecting separate data on where workers will be employed and where they will be housed, and by providing additional guidance on how to report the number of worker positions requested.

3. Improve the reliability of the data on H-2A applications filed on behalf of multiple employers in the new H-2A module of the iCERT system by assessing the feasibility of adding data edit checks to the module that would flag inconsistencies in the data. For example, one check could compare the total number of H-2A positions requested on a multi-employer application to the sum of the number of positions listed on the application for each employer listed and flag applications for further review if the numbers do not match.

For more information, contact Revae Moran at (202) 512-7215 or moranr@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Office of Foreign Labor Certification (OFLC) has added material to its website that discloses specific weaknesses in its performance data of which users should be aware. Specifically, in March 2013, the OFLC published a notice on its Performance web page disclosing the limitations of using H-2A case data (see http://www.foreignlaborcert.doleta.gov/performancedata.cfm). This notice explains how application data are entered, processed, and extrapolated from individual cases, and identifies limitations of the data specific to agricultural associations.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Employment and Training to enhance the transparency of the data reported to the public on the H-2A program in the data files on Labor's website by disclosing the limitations of the data, including that the number of H-2A worker positions requested by employers represents the number requested on their initial applications and does not consistently reflect later changes to the applications, such as increases or decreases in the number of worker positions requested or approved, and that caution should be applied in using the data to draw conclusions about trends in the H-2A program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Labor (DOL) disagrees with this recommendation. DOL noted that agricultural associations are already required by regulation to list the name, address, total number of workers needed, and the crops and agricultural work to be performed for each employer member that will employ H-2A workers. To streamline the processing of applications, the Department reported that they allow agricultural associations filing as joint employers to list the farms or other locations (e.g., temporary labor camps) where workers will be housed on the same attachment as the farms that will employ workers. When the agricultural association needs to adjust the number of workers requested or remove one or more employer members from a pending application, the Office of Foreign Labor Certification (OFLC) performs this action promptly with minimal disruption in application processing, thereby avoiding delays in workers reaching farms to perform vital work. OFLC believes the information it currently collects from employers allows them to process the H-2A applications in a timely manner.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Employment and Training to enhance the validity of the data reported in the data files on multi-employer applications by collecting separate data on where workers will be employed and where they will be housed, and by providing additional guidance on how to report requested worker positions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department agrees that one important aspect of maintaining program integrity involves the use of internal controls to ensure data reliability. In February 2013, the Office of Foreign Labor Certification (OFLC) implemented a new procedure to more accurately reconcile the number of worker positions requested and certified for each employer member listed on an H-2A application filed by an association acting as a joint-employer. In those very limited circumstances where a decision to issue a partial certification (e.g., reducing the original number of worker positions requested) is reached, the OFLC reported that it will promptly contact the agricultural association to ascertain which of its employer members will be receiving fewer workers than were originally requested. Once a response is received, the revised data are entered on the H-2A application record using the iCERT Visa Portal System before the OFLC issues a final certification decision. OFLC believes this procedure adequately addresses the recommendation, however, they will also examine the feasibility of automating this new internal control in its iCERT System over the next six months.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Employment and Training to improve the reliability of the data on H-2A applications filed on behalf of multiple employers in the new H-2A module of the iCERT system by assessing the feasibility of adding data edit checks to the module that would flag inconsistencies in the data. For example, one check could compare the total number of H-2A positions requested on a multi-employer application to the sum of the number of positions listed on the application for each employer listed and flag applications for further review if the numbers do not match.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

 

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