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Certain seasonal businesses will have the opportunity to apply for additional H-2B guest worker visas this fiscal year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced June 22.
DHS said it has yet to determine how many visas will be available, but they will only be offered to seasonal businesses that "would be severely harmed if they do not receive temporary employment relief under the H-2B program." Visas are expected to be made available later than needy employers would like, however—by late July at the earliest.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Obtaining U.S. Employment Visas]
Seasonal employers such as landscapers, summer resorts and seafood processors have come to rely on H-2B workers for summer work and say that being granted visas in late July may be too late.
"We are glad that DHS has signaled that it plans to move forward with H-2B processing next month but urge the department to move forward immediately without further delay," said Laurie Flanagan, co-chair of the H-2B Workforce Coalition, an alliance of more than 40 industry associations. "Waiting until next month to process visa petitions is needlessly prolonging the suffering of seasonal businesses and their American workers."
The H-2B visa program allows U.S. employers to hire foreign nationals during peak seasons, primarily in landscaping, hospitality, seafood processing and recreation jobs. Congress has set the H-2B visa cap at 66,000 per fiscal year (FY), with 33,000 visas granted for workers who begin employment in the first half of the 12-month period (October 1-March 31) and 33,000 visas for workers who begin employment in the second half (April 1-September 30).
All 66,000 H-2B visas for FY 2017 were issued by March 16, leaving no visas available until October 1, 2017.
"Since the congressionally mandated visa cap of 66,000 was reached extremely early this year, many small businesses faced the threat of not operating at full capacity during their peak season as they struggled to find the workers needed to support their full-time, domestic staff," Flanagan said.
Affected employers also contend that DHS seems unwilling to exercise its authority under a May spending bill to expand the number of H-2B visas. The appropriations language gave DHS discretion to increase the visa cap from 66,000 up to about 129,000.
"The pain caused by lack of H-2B workers continues to mount with every day that DHS fails to raise the H-2B cap and resume H-2B processing as is authorized under the Fiscal 2017 Consolidated Appropriations Act," Flanagan said.
But even though he was given the authority, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has repeatedly said at hearings and press briefings that he feels Congress did not mean to expand the number of visas or it would have done so itself. He has also said that many members of Congress object to expanding the program.
A majority of businesses that rely on H-2B workers have experienced financial and reputational harm this season, according to a June survey conducted by the H-2B Workforce Coalition.
Nearly three-fourths of 715 seasonal businesses in 45 states said the lack of H-2B workers has led to less revenue and forced them to scale back goods and services and offer lower-quality goods and services.
More than half (62 percent) of seasonal employers said the lack of H-2B workers has harmed their reputations or customer relationships, and 18 percent reported having to lay off U.S. workers.
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