If you’re in the Green Industry, then you’re probably no stranger to the ever-changing landscape of the H-2B Visa. Each year, thousands of landscaping, construction, forestry, seafood, meat processing, and hospitality companies rely on these visas to keep them staffed and able to operate. And each year, they struggle to be one of the company’s who receive any of the limited amount available. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services(USCIS) and the U.S. Department of Labor(DOL) have the authority to add more visas this year. But what does that mean for you? And when will you know the status of your workers?
What Is An H-2B Visa?
The H-2B Visa allows companies to bring in non-immigrant workers to fill positions where there aren’t enough U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available to do temporary work. Congress determines the cap of how many can be brought in annually without adversely affecting the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers. For the past few years, that cap has been placed at 66,000 per fiscal year. A maximum of 33,000 are available during the first half of any given fiscal year and 33,000 for workers who begin employment in the second half of the fiscal year.
The Returning Worker’s Exemption Program expired back in 2016. This program had allowed H-2B workers from previous years to not count against the fiscal year visa limits. The ending of the program took the nearly 260,000 guest workers and reduced it to 66,000. The shortage has created hardships for many companies, especially those in the hospitality industry.
For the fiscal year 2019, the government gave the Department of Homeland Security(DHS) the ability to increase the limit by an additional 63,500 workers. They ultimately chose only to issue 30,000 more, bringing the cap to 96,000. DHS has the authority to release more visas this year as well, up to 69,320 more.
What’s The Status Now?
At the beginning of the year, the DOL announced they had finished their randomization process. This process split each employer into one of five groups. These groups determine who will get their visa application approved first. In just three days, the DOL received applications for 99,632 worker positions for the allotted 33,000 visas. The first group, A, already has 35,000 applicants to fill. Barring a ton of disqualified applicants, that doesn’t bode well for the other groups. According to the Seasonal Employment Alliance(SEA), that leaves the companies in Group B with only a 25% chance of receiving the workers they need.
On January 15th, both Republican and Democratic Senators sent a letter to urge President Trump not to approve more guest workers. They claim that doing so would hurt American’s looking for work. This claim comes with the current unemployment rate at the lowest it’s been in decades. Senators from Iowa, California, Arkansas, Connecticut, and Illinois believe that the current H-2B program needs major reform before increasing its numbers. “These realities of the H-2B program, as it operates today, incentivize unscrupulous employers to hire H-2B workers instead of American workers and create poor working conditions for immigrant workers and American workers alike,” they claim in their letter.
What Can I Do To Help?
Several areas of reform are currently on the table to improve the system and prevent its abuses. Part of the reform looks to be increasing the current fees involved with filing. The proposed rate increase on H-2B visas is around 58%. While that’s high, it’s still not as high as the 100% increase proposed on H-1B visas.
Other areas being looked at will attempt to decrease the time and effort it takes before filing. Currently, employers must file paper ads in their area to exhaust all opportunities to find local American workers. Relatively few job seekers use print ads in their search, and these ads can be quite expensive. The proposed reform will remove this antiquated requirement from the list of ways employers must check the domestic labor market.
Congress looks to make a decision on releasing more visas by the end of January. How can you help? Reach out to your Member of Congress and express your concern over staffing issues. You can also look for local, regional, and national groups such as SEA who are fighting for more stable legislature.
For more information, check out the Seasonal Employment Alliance’s website at this link.