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.
Earlier this month, Puerto Rico became the latest US jurisdiction to mandate that employers pay men and women equally for the same work, when Governor Ricardo Rosselló signed the Puerto Rico Equal Pay Act, a bill modeled on the federal Equal Pay Act of 1963 but updated with some new provisions regarding salary histories and pay transparency. Jackson Lewis attorneys Maralyssa Álvarez-Sánchez and Juan Felipe Santos outline how the new law aims to enforce gender parity in compensation at the National Law Review :
Pay Discrimination Prohibition. Like the federal Equal Pay Act, Act 16 establishes a general prohibition of pay discrimination based on sex among employees in jobs that require equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and that are performed under similar working conditions, except where such payment is made pursuant to (i) a seniority system; (ii) a merit system; (iii) a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or (iv) a differential based on any other factor other than sex.
Past Salary History Inquiries Prohibited. Act 16 prohibits employers from inquiring into an applicant’s past salary history, unless the applicant volunteered such information or a salary was already negotiated with the applicant and set forth in an offer letter, in which case an employer can inquire or confirm salary history.
Pay Transparency. Act 16 forbids employers from prohibiting discussions about salaries among employees or applicants, with certain exceptions for managers or human resources personnel. It also contains an anti-retaliation provision protecting employees who disclose their own salary or discuss salaries with other employees, object to any conduct prohibited by the law, present a claim or complaint, or participate in an investigation under Act 16.
Puerto Rico’s new governor Ricardo Rosselló signed a bill last week that comprehensively reforms the commonwealth’s employment laws as part of a strategy to revitalize the Puerto Rican economy by lowering the cost of doing business there, the Associated Press reported:
The law approved on Thursday implements flexible scheduling, cuts the amount of a mandatory Christmas bonus, reduces vacation days and overtime pay from double time to time-and-a-half, and implements a nine-month probation period for most workers. It also strikes down a previous law that authorized extra pay for those working on Sundays and allowed businesses to remain closed from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Sundays. …
The law implements some of the changes sought by a federal control board created by Congress last year that said Puerto Rico regulations tied to employee retention, severance pay, flexible scheduling and mandatory vacation days and pensions should reflect U.S. standards.
The new law now allows private employees to work 10 hours a day for four days without earning overtime, and it increases unemployment benefits from a maximum of $133 to $240 a week. However, concerns remain as the island of nearly 3.5 million people struggles to emerge from a deep economic crisis and battles a 12 percent unemployment rate, compared with a U.S. average of nearly 5 percent.
Critics of the law say it will drive skilled professionals to the mainland US and impoverish working-class Puerto Ricans, but economist Gustavo Velez told the AP that even with these changes in place, Puerto Rico would still provide more generous employee benefits under the law than any US state. The change is part of a series of pro-market reforms and austerity measures being enacted by Rosselló to try to pull the island out of compound fiscal and economic crises.