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 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.
The omnibus spending bill passed by Congress late last week and signed into law by President Donald Trump includes a provision allowing the administration to nearly double the number of H-2B visas available for US employers to hire temporary foreign workers this year to 129,547, Vox reported on Friday:
Last year, Congress allowed the Department of Homeland Security to issue more H-2B visas in 2017, as long as it didn’t surpass the highest number of H-2B visas ever issued in a year,which was 129,547 in 2007 (back then, returning H-2B workers weren’t counted in the visa cap). The agency ended up issuing an extra 15,000 in July last year, which was a low figure because the summer season was already halfway done. Congress made the same exception for the department this year. …
Competition for the visas has been fierce this year. The Department of Labor says it is swamped with applications from businesses that want to hire guest workers for the summer. By January 1, the department had received requests to hire 81,008 H-2B workers for the summer season — far beyond the 33,000 originally allowed. In February, a coalition of businesses that hire H-2B workers lobbied Congress to lift the cap again. It appears Congress heard them.
The expansion of the program comes as American companies in seasonal industries like hospitality are being pressed to compete more aggressively for temporary workers in the coming spring and summer season. While these employees don’t normally have the leverage to negotiate for higher pay, they are taking advantage of the tight labor market to demand more flexibility and control over their schedules. Last summer, some employers complained that Trump’s restrictive immigration policies were contributing to labor shortages and costing them business. The expansion of the H-2B program should help alleviate some of this pressure, but the new cap still falls well short of the number of applications that come in each year.
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.
US President Donald Trump’s efforts to curb the number of both documented and undocumented immigrants coming into the US has done little to stifle demand for foreign talent among US employers, particularly in industries where qualified or willing candidates with US citizenship are harder to find. Trump’s “Hire American” policy is meant to boost wages and employment among Americans by reducing competition from foreign workers, though critics have insisted this would stifle growth and lead to labor shortages.
One industry that has been heavily reliant on foreign talent in recent years is the travel and tourism sector. While the government ended up expanding the number of H-2B guest worker visas by 15,000 in July, the expansion may have been too small and come too late and was too small to help some employers, while other critics said it was unjustified. Now that the first summer season of the Trump administration is drawing to a close, Politico’s Ted Hesson looks at how the sector coped with the new environment, whether by “hiring American,” raising wages, or scaling back their operations:
North American Midway Entertainment, a large traveling-amusement-park company headquartered in Indiana, requested roughly 400 H-2B workers this year, a quarter of its total seasonal workforce. But the Department of Homeland Security reached its 66,000-visa cap before the company could secure the guest workers. Company President Danny Huston said he had to skip three fairs and contract out some ride operations because of the visa shortage. In total, he estimates that North American Midway may have lost as much as $800,000. …
To address a shortage of labor in seasonal industries like hospitality and tourism, the US Department of Homeland Security on Monday authorized the release of an additional 15,000 H-2B visas, which are designated for low-skill, non-farm seasonal workers, for businesses that can prove they will be harmed if they cannot access foreign labor this summer, the New York Times reports:
Each year, the government makes available 66,000 H-2B visas, which are divided between the winter and summer seasons. The summer allotment has been quickly exhausted because Congress, concerned about the visa program’s impact on American workers, chose in December not to renew a provision that did not count workers who previously had H-2B visas against the quota. That decision halved the number of available visas. Congress then gave the homeland security secretary, John F. Kelly, the authority to release more visas, which a bipartisan group of lawmakers had been calling on him to do since May. …
Before being granted a seasonal visa, businesses must show that they have tried to fill vacancies with domestic workers by placing advertisements. They must also attest, under penalty of perjury, that their businesses will suffer permanent and severe financial loss if they are not allowed to hire foreign workers.
The decision to issue more H-2B visas seems to conflict with President Donald Trump’s “Hire American” policy and his attempts to rein in other work visa programs like the H-1B, but DHS officials are depicting the decision as pro-American businesses, Quartz’s Ana Campoy adds, though it also may not be sufficient: