More Visas for Seasonal Workers in Pipeline, DHS Says

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By Laura D. Francis

The Department of Homeland Security is going forward with its plan to increase the number of low-skilled, seasonal visas available in fiscal year 2017.

The agency July 3 submitted a final rule for review by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. The DHS is exercising the authority granted by Congress to increase the number of H-2B visas available this fiscal year, up to the total amount issued during prior years when the annual cap was temporarily raised, the proposed rule says.

The exact number of additional visas isn’t yet available, and the DHS declined to provide additional details on the rule July 5.

The 66,000 H-2B visas available this year ran out in mid-March. They are popular among seasonal industries such as landscaping, hospitality, and amusement.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly decided to increase the visas this year, and they were expected to be available in late July, DHS spokesman David Lapan told Bloomberg BNA June 22. “DHS is only seeking to provide visas to truly seasonal industries that would be severely/significantly harmed by not receiving H2B visas which would adversely impact US workers employed by these seasonal businesses,” Lapan said at the time.

A bipartisan group of seven senators sent Kelly a letter June 27 expressing concern that the number of additional visas to be issued this year will be too low and issued too late.

‘Anything’s Better Than Nothing’

“Anything’s better than nothing,” Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president for industry advocacy and research at AmericanHort, told Bloomberg BNA July 5. Despite the lateness in the fiscal year, companies that use H-2B workers “would welcome whatever relief they could get,” he said.

AmericanHort is a trade association representing landscape, nursery, and horticulture businesses.

“We oppose the decision that DHS is making,” and “we’re certainly disappointed” that Kelly decided to increase the visas, especially after President Donald Trump made campaign promises to prioritize U.S. workers, Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism at NumbersUSA, told Bloomberg BNA July 5.

Kelly is “trying to appease some of those special interests” advocating for the visas, but it is “at the expense of folks that believed and supported Trump’s campaign messages,” said Chmielenski, whose organization supports lower immigration levels.

The one saving grace is that companies are “still going to have to jump through all these hoops” to get the foreign workers, he said. Labor Department certifications that U.S. workers can’t be found typically “get rubber stamped,” Chmielenski said. “Hopefully there will be a little more scrutiny” because this process will involve issuing visas “above and beyond the normal levels,” he said.

But anyone who has gone through the labor certification process at the DOL “should be good to go,” Regelbrugge said. The “protecting American workers piece is baked into the program,” he said.

Regelbrugge also said he’s “hopeful” that “there aren’t additional criteria that pick winners and losers among industries and geographies” for the added visas.

‘Desperation’ or ‘Easy Way Out’?

“The word desperation keeps coming up,” Regelbrugge said. Companies have asked clients to defer landscaping projects where possible and have used subcontractors to perform necessary maintenance work, he said.

In some cases, existing staff have had to work 60 hours a week because of the lack of adequate manpower, Regelbrugge said. That’s good for the workers earning the overtime, but the companies bid on and won contracts assuming a certain pay level for their employees, he said. That means those companies have to eat the extra money themselves, he said.

But Chmielenski said “there doesn’t seem to be any real evidence that this labor shortage in these lower-skilled jobs exists.”

“It comes down to two things,” he said. The companies that rely on H-2B workers “really don’t want to raise their wages” to attract U.S. workers, Chmielenski said, and businesses in “more remote locations” don’t “want to leave their geographical areas to recruit workers to their locations.”“They want to take the easy way out” and beg the government for more foreign worker visas, Chmielenski said. “If they did not have the cap increased, they would figure out creative ways to fill their job needs,” he said.

The Economic Policy Institute has found that there was no significant wage growth from 2004 to 2014 within the 15 top occupations for H-2B visas, Chmielenski said. In all of those occupations, wages remained stagnant or declined during that time, according to the EPI.

“I think people are trying everything under the sun” to recruit workers, and they’ve “redoubled efforts in potential labor pools,” Regelbrugge said. It would be a “piece of cake” for companies like Microsoft or Google to ask workers to relocate, but people are less willing to pick up and move for intermittent production work, he said.

Regelbrugge cited the findings of Stephen Bronars, a partner with Edgeworth Economics. In 2016, Bronars testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the H-2B program doesn’t depress wages because companies have to pay a DOL-determined prevailing wage, which is based on the mean wage in the area of intended employment.

Raising wages isn’t that simple, Regelbrugge said. Landscaping services are a “discretionary spend,” and so they are likely to be dropped by clients if they become too expensive, he said.

“In most parts of the country, we’re at a place where anybody who is willing and able to work is working,” and seasonal and intermittent employment is the least attractive option, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura D. Francis in Washington at lfrancis@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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