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H-2B Short-Term Workers: Essential For U.S. Employers' Survival

by Brendan Flanagan, John Meredith, et. al of the H-2B Workforce Coalition

The restrictive cap limiting the H-2B visa category was exhausted on January 3, 2005, only 3 months into the current fiscal year, leaving in crisis many U.S. employers who depend on the short-term visa program to augment their American workforce. Unless Congress acts quickly to increase access to this visa program, thousands of positions, for which there are no U.S. workers available, will go unfilled. Consequently, many U.S. small businesses will be forced to limit their services or close their doors-some permanently. Legislation has been introduced; S. 352 (Mikulski and Gregg) and H.R. 793 (Gilchrest and Delahunt) which would solve this immediate problem, and we urge immediate passage of these bills.

U.S. employers from a wide-range of industries essential to the American economy and the economies of communities across this nation use the H-2B visa program. Tourism and service industries from Maine to Alaska, landscapers and minor league sports teams across America, the timber industry in Maine, the catfish and timber industries in Louisiana, crab processing in North Carolina, and the seafood industry in the Southeast are but a few of the industries that depend on the H-2B visa program to bring in needed workers.

Small businesses often spend thousands of dollars and many hours in aggressive recruiting campaigns attempting to hire Americans for short-term jobs. When they are unable to find U.S. workers, employers must turn to the federal government's H-2B worker program in order to legally obtain short-term workers. For many small businesses, this is the only legal way they can hire short-term seasonal workers. However, this process is confusing, time consuming, and expensive. In order to hire H-2B workers, U.S. employers must take the following steps:

  • Recruit U.S. workers under the direction of the State Workforce Agency and receive certification that an insufficient number of American workers were willing and able to fill the vacant positions;
  • Apply for an additional certification of need from the U.S. Department of Labor;
  • File with the Department of Homeland Security applications and fees for H-2B workers; and,
  • Obtain approval for H-2B visas from the U.S. State Department, and, in many cases, provide transportation and lodging for the workers.
At the end of the season, the H-2B workers must go home.

The H-2B visa program is capped at 66,000 visas per year. This number has not been adjusted since the visa category was initially capped in 1990. However, during that period, a variety of factors have hampered U.S. employers' ability to find and hire willing American workers for short-term positions, including increasing education levels of the U.S. workforce, and increases in summer internships and office jobs for college students. Shortages in certain sectors of our economy are getting worse and the demand for workers to fill service-sector jobs is increasing. In some cases, Americans are unwilling to engage in low-skilled and semi-skilled short-term seasonal employment. In other case, many Americans are unwilling to relocate to a new location for several months out of the year, a move required by many of these short-term seasonal jobs.

The current H-2B visa blackout follows the exhaustion of the FY 2004 cap last spring. With the cap being reached only 6 months into the last fiscal year, Congress responded by introducing bills in the House and Senate. In 2004, Congress tried at least twice came close to fixing the H-2B crisis. Unfortunately, these emergency efforts were derailed in Congress by the debate over comprehensive immigration reform.

Congress must address this issue early in the 109th session and pass S. 352 and H.R. 793 that will provide U.S. employers with access to H-2B workers for this fiscal year and future years. The H-2B Workforce Coalition opposes measures that would make sweeping permanent changes to the H-2B program in exchange for a short-term fix. Such permanent changes should be thoroughly vetted through hearings and only considered as part of the discussion of comprehensive reform. A successful solution must include the following:

  • An exemption for prior workers who used the program during the previous 3 years. Such an exemption should continue until Congress is able to modernize our immigration system through comprehensive immigration reform.
  • Immediate access to the exemption beginning the day the law is signed. The legislation should have an effective date of October 1, 2004.
The H-2B Workforce Coalition urges Congress to remember that the H-2B fix is urgently needed and time is of the essence. Without immediate action, the economies of communities that depend on the availability of a short-term workforce will suffer dramatically.

About The Author

Brendan Flanagan, John Meredith, et. al of the H-2B Workforce Coalition. The H-2B Coalition is a consortium of industry associations and small businesses who have joined together in support of increasing access to legal workers through the H-2B visa program.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.