Understanding H-2A Housing Requirements for Farm Workers

May 23, 2024

Providing H-2A housing for your workers is the heart of the program’s ethos. Like every aspect of the program, your farm must comply with strict regulations and guidelines from OSHA, the Department of Labor, and local regulators. Part of this obligation is to provide an adequate sleeping, living, kitchen, and laundry space that meets the H-2A housing requirements. Otherwise, your agricultural operation could face penalties.

Of course, complying with H-2A visa housing requirements isn’t exclusively about avoiding fines. It’s also about keeping your workers safe, happy, and healthy so your team and farm can thrive. 

Housing 101: The Very Basics

Understanding Space Requirements 

According to the Department of Labor,  there must be 50 square feet of space per worker for rooms just meant for sleeping.  However, if farm workers are required to cook, live, and sleep in the same room, each occupant must have a minimum of 100 square feet of floor area. And your ceilings must be at least 7 feet high. Additionally, workers must be provided with storage facilities, like wall lockers. These must be 36 inches away from the beds and 12 inches off the floor.

On a side note, housing used for families must include a separate room or partition for the parents. This applies if your workers have one or more children over the age of six.

Note that states may have stricter regulations, so you must comply with those standards. In general, be conservative and abide by the most stringent rules. Here is the official space requirements table for Washington temporary worker housing (TWH):

The easiest way to comply with these rules is to calculate the maximum occupancy of each unit and meticulously track who is living there. We have built-in housing tracking on Harvust, so you can assign H-2A workers (and non-H-2A workers when needed) to different units and get a real-time view of occupancy rates. It also creates a paper trail of housing moves in case of regulatory or lawsuit scrutiny. 

Bathroom and Laundry Essentials

Farms must also provide bathroom and laundry facilities. There must be separate toilets for men and women, with at least one toilet for every 15 people. You must provide an adequate supply of toilet paper, as well. Additionally, there must be at least one shower for every ten people. Note that poor bathroom facilities are one of the top employee complaints.

In-house laundry facilities aren’t mandatory, but employers must provide transportation to laundromat facilities and cover all expenses if no laundry room is on site.

Breathe Easy: Why Ventilation Matters

Proper ventilation is another aspect of H-2A housing regulations to consider. Ensuring constant airflow prevents mold and maintains worker health. The last thing you want is illness to spread throughout your workforce.

Current OSHA standards state that every housing unit must have at least one window that workers can open. The window must open directly to the outdoors. Furthermore, all living quarters should have these windows covering at least 10% of the floor area.

Local standards again may be more strict. For example, in Washington state, there are additional TWH standards for mechanical ventilation, such as minimum air filtration requirements (MERV 13).

H-2A Housing Kitchens: Where OSHA Gets Picky (And Why It Matters) 

Cookouts, Not Code Violations 

Kitchens are an easy place for regulators to fault your housing and pile on the fines. You already know that H-2A housing requirements require “adequate cooking and kitchen facilities,” but what does this mean?

Firstly, if you provide cooking and kitchen facilities instead of fully catered meals, you must have at least one stove per 10 people. If you have families on your farm, the ratio changes from one stove per two families. 

All heating, cooking, and water heating equipment must be installed to match state and local codes and regulations. This is why you must go beyond the H-2A visa housing requirements the federal government sets. 

So, what else must your kitchen have?

Kitchen Equipment 

At a minimum, your kitchens should have:

Every item should be in good working order. Any additional cooking appliances you provide, such as toaster ovens or blenders, are not required, but they can make for happier, more motivated workers.

Facilities for preparing food must be sanitary. Wall surfaces next to food prep and cooking areas must be easy to clean and made of a non-absorbent, fire-resistant material.

Sanitation

Your kitchens should include places to dispose of garbage. These containers must be durable and fly tight. The regulations also state that waste must be collected or buried at least twice weekly. 

Water Supply

All kitchens must include an adequate water supply that’s convenient for access. This must be approved by your local health authority and cover the following purposes:

The definition of “adequate” is set at a water supply capable of delivering at least 35 gallons per person daily.

Food Storage

Under H-2A housing regulations, you must offer sanitary locations for storing food. In other words, you should have a refrigerator to preserve food at or below 45 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pest Control

Farms are hotspots for bugs, rodents, and other critters. Naturally, they’re attracted to the kitchen areas, so DOL mandates that farms provide provisions for deterring and eliminating unwanted visitors. Examples include sealed food storage containers, sprays, and other tools to help your workers combat vermin, insects, and rodents. 

Lighting

Every habitable room must have a ceiling light fixture and an outlet on the floor or wall. In other rooms, such as living areas and kitchens, the minimum illuminance level must be 30 foot-candles set 30 inches above the ground. A foot-candle is a unit of measurement for the intensity of light. It represents the amount of light received one foot away from a light source equivalent to one candle. In more technical terms, one foot-candle equals one lumen per square foot. A lumen measures the total quantity of visible light emitted by a source per unit of time. In short, spaces need to be well-lit. Be aware of workers removing lightbulbs from fixtures; if that happens and you get inspected, it will be your fault for non-compliance!

Going Above and Beyond (Because Happy Workers = Good Workers)

H-2A worker housing requirements are the minimum standard for housing. Achieving these standards will enable you to avoid code violations and hefty financial penalties, but competent farm operators know that going further can pay dividends. 

Little Luxuries Matter

Margins can be tight on the farm, but that doesn’t mean your workers should suffer. Offering little luxuries and a better standard of housing improves farmworker recruitment and retention.

Some examples of extra benefits for worker housing could include:

In short, these added extras make your farm a better place to work. It’s beneficial because you’ll have a more motivated workforce, and it can improve your image within the community. Championing workers’ rights is always a plus for any farm relying on H-2A workers.

When DIY Is a Disaster, Consider Third Party Help

Managing everything yourself requires considerable time and attention if you’re going to get everything in order. Even minor code violations represent a colossal headache. With more than 100 items to cover on the official OSHA checklist, it’s not difficult to miss something.

Another option, of course, is to outsource your housing. That way, you can shift the kitchen compliance and maintenance burden—though not all of the liability—onto someone else. If your farm has operations in the Pacific Northwest, Wafla is your lowest-risk option and what we recommend. They can also assist you in making your kitchens (and the rest of your housing) compliant.

Frequently Asked Questions 

Do H-2A housing requirements differ by jurisdiction?

H-2A housing requirements don’t technically differ by jurisdiction because the federal government sets them. However, specific states or localities may have regulations that force agricultural businesses to conform to a higher standard of housing.

How many workers can live in my H-2A housing?

It depends. Technically, there is no limit as long as you comply with the minimum square footage requirement of 100 square feet per person for cooking, living, and sleeping.

 

Are my workers responsible for maintaining their living facilities?

No, you are responsible for maintaining and cleaning your housing facilities. Of course, it’s reasonable to expect your workers to clean up after themselves, but you must conduct regular inspections to ensure your housing is still sanitary. Ultimately, the authorities will hold you responsible.

 

What if my housing isn’t compliant with H-2A housing regulations?

The rules state that you must solve the problem immediately if any deficiencies are found. This could involve upgrading housing and making repairs. In extreme cases, you may even need to source alternative temporary accommodations out of your pocket.

 

What are the penalties for H-2A housing violations?

Audits happen constantly. If your housing doesn’t meet the required standards, your business could receive substantial financial penalties. Some farms have even seen their H-2A certifications revoked entirely.

Overwhelmed by H-2A Housing Requirements? Harvust & wafla Have Your Back.

H-2A worker housing requirements shouldn’t be seen as an obstacle but as a guide for creating living quarters where workers can enjoy a good quality of life. To help manage the housing assignments, paperwork, and compliance for your H-2A workers, turn to the modern solution for the contemporary farm by contacting Harvust today.

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