Spending Bill Potentially Doubles H-2B Visas for FY 2017

Legislation also extends E-Verify through September 30

By Roy Maurer May 4, 2017
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Employers in need of temporary, seasonal workers for landscaping and hospitality jobs this summer may have another opportunity to hire H-2B visa workers.   

The U.S. Congress passed a federal spending bill May 4 that allows the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to increase the number of H-2B visas available for fiscal year (FY) 2017 as long as the total number of visas doesn't surpass past usage of the program—about 130,000, including those already counted toward the 66,000 visa cap.

The H-2B visa program allows U.S. employers to hire foreign nationals during peak seasons to supplement the native workforce, primarily in landscaping, forestry, hospitality and recreation jobs. Congress has set the H-2B visa cap at 66,000 per fiscal year, 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-Sept. 30).

Any unused numbers from the first half of the year can be made available to employers seeking to hire H-2B workers during the remainder of the year.

The highest number of H-2B visas was issued in FY 2007, when 129,547 were disseminated, according to the Congressional Research Service.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Obtaining U.S. Employment Visas] 

"Many professional landscape businesses rely on legal, highly vetted seasonal guest workers to meet their peak season needs, and we thank congressional negotiators for including critical cap relief in the fiscal year 2017 spending package," said Paul Mendelsohn, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Landscape Professionals, based in Herndon, Va.

Landscape professionals across the country are cautiously optimistic that they will be able to keep their businesses open this year, he added. "Of course, our goal is to make the returning worker exemption a permanent feature of the H-2B program, but this is an important first step."

The returning worker exemption allowed employers to hire H-2B workers who had come to the U.S. in at least one of the prior three fiscal years without those workers counting toward the annual cap on visas. The exemption expired Sept. 30, 2016.

It is still uncertain whether any additional H-2B visas will be allotted. DHS could simply ignore the suggestion.

President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order urging businesses to "hire American," and warned against displacing U.S. workers with workers from abroad, though much of the language in the order targeted the controversial H-1B visa program for skilled foreign workers.

The FY 2017 H-2B visa cap was reached March 16, leaving no visas available until Oct. 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," said the H-2B Workforce Coalition, an alliance of more than 40 industry associations.

"Lodging industry employers always look first to the U.S. workforce to fill critical job functions during peak seasons at hotels, but in many instances, there are no workers available," said Brian Crawford, vice president of government and political affairs at the American Hotel & Lodging Association and co-chair of the H-2B Workforce Coalition.

The spending bill contains an additional provision affecting the H-2B program, allowing the seafood industry to bring H-2B workers to the U.S. on a staggered basis at any time within 120 days of the start date listed on their petitions. Employers that bring in workers more than 90 days after the start date would have to conduct additional recruitment of U.S. workers.

The bill also extends the government's E-Verify electronic employment verification program through FY 2017.

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