Seasonal Stress: The Struggle for H-2B Guest Worker Visas

October 11, 2018 By Julie Kramer - Leave a comment

shutterstock_188410403For businesses that rely on foreign guest workers to staff their seasonal workforce, hiring has become a year-round headache. Recently, demand for H-2B visas has eclipsed supply, leaving jobs unfilled and companies caught short.

H-2B visas allow foreign non-agricultural temporary workers to fill short-term jobs in the U.S. While demand for them has increased steadily since 2011, the current labor shortage has only made things worse—compounded by resounding anti-immigrant sentiment in Washington. Unfortunately, employers are caught in the middle. 

H-2B Visas: Supply vs. Demand

Here’s how H-2B visas work: employers who can’t find American workers to fill unskilled seasonal positions can petition for the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) for authorization to bring guest workers in. Approved workers come in via H-2B visas, which are good for less than one year.   

However, there are a limited number of H-2B job slots available each fiscal year. For fiscal year 2018, which just ended, Congress set the H-2B visa cap at 66,000. 33,000 visas were allotted to workers beginning employment in the first half of the fiscal year (October 1-March 31); the remaining 33,000 went to workers starting employment in the second half of the fiscal year (April 1-September 30).    

But 66,000 wasn’t enough. Case in point: the cap for the first half of fiscal year 2018 was met on December 15, a month earlier than in previous years. In the second half of the fiscal year, U.S. employers submitted petitions for more than 47,000 workers—far more than the 33,000 available. As a result, the USCIS conducted a lottery to distribute the available visas. Some employers (and workers) lucked out; others were not so fortunate. 

In response to pressure from U.S. employers, the Department of Homeland Security increased the cap on H-2B visas by another 15,000 through the end of the fiscal year—available only to U.S. businesses that attested that they would likely suffer “irreparable harm” without the ability to employ guest workers.

However, it was made clear that this was a one-time extension that would not be applied in future fiscal years—so the problem remains unaddressed.

Guest Workers by the Numbers

Obviously, certain industries rely more heavily than others on H-2B visas. According to the Office of Foreign Labor Certifications, for fiscal year 2018, the top 10 H-2B occupations included (in order):

  • Landscaping/grounds-keeping workers
  • Maids and housekeepers
  • Amusement and recreation attendants
  • Forest and conservation workers
  • Meat, poultry and fish cutters and trimmers
  • Construction laborers
  • Laborers, freight, stock and material movers
  • Counter attendants, cafeteria and food concession workers
  • Non-farm animal caretakers
  • Restaurant cooks

In addition, some states host higher numbers of H-2B positions than others. For six years running, Texas has ranked highest in terms of H-2B guest workers. In fiscal year 2018, other leading states included Colorado, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia. 

Behind the H-2B Visa Controversy

The controversy surrounding H-2B visas is nearly as heated as the discussion surrounding immigration itself. 

Many businesses—especially in industries that rely on unskilled and seasonal labor—say that American workers don’t want these positions, which are temporary, physically demanding, and typically low paying.  

The H-2B Workforce Coalition, a consortium of U.S. industry associations that supports a robust guest worker program, notes that every H-2B worker actually creates or sustains 4.64 American jobs, citing a study by the American Enterprise Institute.  

On the other hand, opponents of immigration—which includes members of our current administration—maintain that the H-2B visa program restricts opportunities for American workers with limited education and skills. 

What’s the Outlook for 2019?

With the fiscal year 2019 already underway, experts are warning employers with seasonal businesses not to expect any big changes to the H-2B visa program—and to plan accordingly.

Some employers are taking steps to attract local seasonal workers. They’re starting their hiring process earlier, updating their job descriptions and widening their outreach. They’re appealing to gig-economy workers to by streamlining some of their processes. And they’re using HR technology to simplify it all. 

At EPAY Systems, we can’t help you win the H-2B lottery. But we can help you win the HR technology lottery, especially if you manage an hourly, distributed—and yes, seasonal—workforce.

Our flexible HCM system is built to accommodate a fluid, ever-changing, hard-to-track workforce. From our streamlined recruiting and applicant tracking software to our advanced time and labor management solution, we can help you make the most of your workforce—not just during busy season, but every day of the year. Check us out.     

Filed Under: Workforce Management