The Wage and Hour division of the US Department of Labor announced earlier this month that it was planning a campaign of inspections and investigations targeting employers who use the H-2B seasonal guest worker visa program to hire temporary employees from other countries. Billed as an “education and enforcement initiative,” the campaign will target hotels and landscapers, the two industries that rely most heavily on the H-2B visa, “providing compliance assistance tools and information to employers and stakeholders, as well as conducting investigations of employers using this program,” according to the Labor Department’s statement:
A key component of the investigations is ensuring that employers recruit U.S. workers before applying for permission to employ temporary nonimmigrant workers. “Any employer seeking workers under this program must be ready and willing to hire qualified U.S. applicants first,” said Bryan Jarrett, Wage and Hour Division Acting Administrator. “This initiative demonstrates our commitment to safeguard American jobs, level the playing field for law-abiding employers, and protect guest workers from being paid less than they are legally owed or otherwise working under substandard conditions.”
Last year, WHD investigations found more than $105 million in back wages for more than 97,000 workers in industries with a high prevalence of H-2B workers, including the hotel industry.
The H-2B is a six-month visa that allows foreigners to work for a US employer temporarily and is most commonly used in the hospitality and landscaping industries to fill labor shortages in the high-demand summer season. In a historically tight market for American workers, employers in these industries have grown more dependent on the H-2B program to keep up with seasonal demand and grow their businesses. The policies of President Donald Trump, who has tasked his administration with reducing the number of both legal and undocumented immigrants entering the US, have exacerbated the labor market challenges of many employers who rely on guest worker visa programs like the H-1B and H-2B.
The UK government’s Migration Advisory Committee issued a report this week assessing the impact of immigration from the European Economic Area and suggesting ways for the government to reform immigration policy in preparation for the UK’s exit from the European Union next March. Once Brexit is fully implemented in 2020, freedom of movement is expected to end between the UK and the EU, meaning UK employers will no longer be able to seamlessly recruit workers from other European countries, which employers fear may lead to labor shortages in a range of industries from agriculture and construction to hospitality, health care, and finance.
The MAC report concludes that there is no need for the UK to continue to have separate immigration rules for EU/EEA citizens and migrants from other countries. The committee’s main recommendation for alleviating these potential shortages is to remove the cap on Tier 2 skilled-worker visas, People Management explains:
Along with ending the Tier 2 (General) visa cap, the report also suggested extending Tier 2 eligibility to medium-skilled roles and abolishing the resident market test list but retaining the £30,000 salary threshold. It added the immigration skills charge should also cover EEA citizens. The report noted these changes “would allow employers to hire migrants into medium-skill jobs but would also require employers to pay salaries that place greater upward pressure on earnings in the sectors”.
Tier 2 visas became a concern for employers earlier this year as restricted certificates of sponsorship – which must be obtained by UK employers hiring non-EEA staff – were continuously oversubscribed for in the first half of 2018. Pressure on the system only eased after the government removed NHS doctors and nurses from the cap.
The main upshot of this proposal is that highly skilled talent would be relatively easy to recruit from other countries, but low-skill workers would not. Writing at Personnel Today, Kerry Garcia and Jackie Penlington from the law firm Stevens & Bolton LLP take a closer look at what the MAC’s scheme would mean for employers:
Under a new policy that came into effect on Tuesday, visa adjudicators at US Citizenship and Immigration Services are now allowed to deny visa applications or petitions without first issuing a notice of intent to deny or a request for additional evidence. In announcing the policy in July, the agency said the policy was “intended to discourage frivolous or substantially incomplete filings used as ‘placeholder’ filings and encourage applicants, petitioners, and requestors to be diligent in collecting and submitting required evidence. It is not intended to penalize filers for innocent mistakes or misunderstandings of evidentiary requirements.”
Immigration lawyers, however, tell ProPublica that the policy will effectively make it much harder for visa applications to succeed, adding to the various procedural barriers the Trump administration has erected to slow down legal immigration to the US. The attorneys expressed concern that “there is not enough oversight or clear standards to ensure fair handling”:
One reason the lawyers are worried is that they’ve seen a barrage of scrutiny directed at once-standard immigration applications since Trump took office. ProPublica spoke with a dozen lawyers and reviewed documentation for several of these cases.
Many responses cited technicalities: One application was not accepted because the seventh page, usually left blank, was not attached. Another was rejected because it did not have a table of contents and exhibit numbers, even though it had other forms of organization. “It seems like they are just making every single submission difficult,” Bonnefil said. “Even the most standard, run-of-the-mill” application.
The US Department of Homeland Security announced on Friday that it would issue an additional 15,000 H-2B visas this summer for employers to hire non-farm seasonal workers from abroad, the Wall Street Journal reported. The guest worker visa program is limited by Congress to 66,000 of the six-month visas each year, divided evenly between the summer and winter seasons. This cap has not been raised since the 1990s, but the spending bill passed by Congress in March grants Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen the discretion to issue about twice that number depending on labor market needs.
DHS also issued an additional 15,000 visas last year, but coming in July, that decision was criticized as coming too late in the season to mitigate the shortages of seasonal labor that employers in sectors like hospitality, tourism, and landscaping had complained of. The Trump administration’s anti-immigration posture and its reluctance to open up the US to more foreign workers of any kind have had an impact on these seasonal industries’ ability to fill jobs, forcing them to raise wages, scramble to find American workers, or cut back on business in response. (Critics of the H-2B program, on both the left and the right, say these employers should be paying higher wages and working harder to market these jobs to US citizens.)
This summer, the labor market in the US is as tight as it was last year, if not more so, and seasonal employers are facing a similar challenge. Candidates for seasonal positions are finding themselves with more bargaining power than they used to have, being able to demand greater flexibility and control over their schedules. Employers have reported, meanwhile, that their applications for H-2B visas are being rejected at higher rates than usual. Demand for the visas this year so greatly exceeded the cap, the department had to award them through a lottery system, making the process more unpredictable for business owners who are accustomed to using these visas regularly.
Bilal Aliyar m/Shutterstock
More H-1B visas are being granted to US tech companies, whereas India-based outsourcing firms are receiving fewer of them, according to an analysis of government data on 2017 H-1B allocations from the National Foundation for American Policy. This trend, the NFAP argues in its policy brief, “reflect[s] the strong demand for high-skilled talent” in the US and “would appear to undermine the argument that the federal government should impose new restrictions on H-1B visas.”
The Trump administration has indeed been determined to restrict the use of these visas, which are awarded to highly skilled foreign workers to fill gaps in the US labor market, as part of President Donald Trump’s overall anti-immigration posture. While only an act of Congress can fundamentally restructure of the program and Trump’s desired rule changes have not yet been enacted, the administration has subtly undermined it by suspending premium processing two years in a row, tightening approval standards, and proposing to end work authorization for H-4 visa holders, the spouses of H-1B workers (a plan the administration reaffirmed this week).
It is difficult to say with certainty, however, whether the shift observed in the NFAP’s research is a rebuke of the Trump administration’s crackdown or a consequence of it. It may reflect the changing strategies of major Indian outsourcing companies since Trump’s election, which portended a change in H-1B policy and made it riskier for these firms to rely on the visas. Infosys, India’s second-largest IT services and outsourcing company and one of the leading users H-1Bs, announced plans last year to hire 10,000 US citizen employees and open new innovation hubs throughout the US. Infosys said at the time that this decision predated the Trump administration, but it still serves to guard against a scenario in which the supply of H-1B visas was curtailed.
Some observers see the gravitation of H-1Bs away from outsourcing companies as a response to the Trump administration’s policies, or even a sign that these policies are working. Axios’s Stef Kight captured both sides of the debate in her reporting:
Bilal Aliyar m/Shutterstock
The application period for H-1B temporary skilled worker visas came and went last week, with US Citizenship and Immigration Services reaching its petition cap this year within five days of the application period opening on April 2, CNet reported on Friday. In a process that has become commonplace in recent years, demand for the 85,000 highly-coveted visas issued each year quickly surpassed the number available, prompting USCIS to stop accepting applications. The visas will be awarded by lottery and the recipients will be eligible to come to the US and start working in October.
Nobody is particularly in favor of the H-1B lottery system. Advocates of a more liberal immigration policy consider the annual limit arbitrary and far too low, as in this statement reported by CNet:
“That’s it for the entire year for our nation’s ability to bring in the best and brightest individuals through the H-1B program to come create American jobs,” Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, a US lobby in favor of immigration reform, said in a statement. “In addition to forcing us to miss out on the creation of American jobs, these arbitrary limits will stifle medical innovation and wage growth, and will hurt our economy.”
At the other end of the spectrum, however, are critics who say the US issues too many of these visas and is insufficiently selective in how it awards them, such as President Donald Trump, who rode into Washington last year vowing to reform the H-1B system as part of a broader effort to reduce both legal and illegal immigration to the US. In his “Buy American, Hire American” executive order issued a year ago, Trump called for changes to the program to crack down on what he described as fraud and abuse, and advocated awarding the visas based on merit rather than by a random lottery.
Nonetheless, the Wall Street Journal reports, this round of H-1B applications visas is being distributed without the major changes Trump has requested.
As seasonal industries like construction, landscaping, and home improvement ramp up hiring for the warmer months of the year, the tightness of the US labor market is requiring employers to embrace new technologies to recruit at a faster pace, and engendering unusually stiff competition for seasonal talent. Candidates for part-time and temporary work don’t normally hold much leverage when it comes to negotiating pay and benefits, in this economy, they are increasingly able to demand more flexibility in terms of scheduling, Steve Bates writes in an overview of the seasonal hiring landscape at SHRM:
“The old way was ‘You’ve got to work certain shifts,’ ” said Greg Dyer, president of Randstad Commercial Staffing, who is based in Atlanta. “Now the workforce is demanding ‘I want to work when I want to work.’ “
Low unemployment and improved technology have empowered the full-time workforce. That trend is filtering down to seasonal hiring as the gig economy grows and increasing numbers of U.S. workers—particularly Millennials—value flexibility over pay rates and long-term job security.
“It is a worker’s market,” said Jocelyn Mangan, chief operating officer of online employment platform Snagajob, which is headquartered in Arlington, Va. “Employers are having to work harder.” … In addition to using traditional online job postings, employers are experimenting with kiosks, social media and mobile apps to find, schedule and keep seasonal hires.
The scarcity of available seasonal workers is also becoming a challenge for retailers, shipping companies, and other employers in the winter season, leading many companies to start their search for holiday workers earlier than usual in the autumn.