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.
Unable to hire from abroad or to fill the roles they need with local talent, many seasonal employers are in a bind. As a result, the Associated Press noted in a recent feature, a growing number of businesses are looking to Puerto Rico, a US territory whose residents are American citizens, to fill these seasonal roles. Puerto Rico is still recovering from the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria last September, which caused massive job losses, leaving a larger than usual pool of Puerto Ricans willing to relocate to the continental US for work:
As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans face no travel restrictions and can work as long as they want. They won’t solve the summer work shortage, but for some on the mainland it’s helping as employers frantically try to fill slots, with Memorial Day weekend signaling the unofficial start of the summer tourism season.
Many mainland businesses have been hiring people from the Caribbean territory for years, and they sent recruiters after the hurricane. More than 30,000 businesses closed and an estimated 130,000 to more than 200,000 left for the mainland after Maria struck as a Category 4 storm last September, causing more than $100 billion in damage, the government said.