DHS announced on July 17, 2017, a one-time increase of 15,000 H-2B visas – still short of the number Congress had authorized. Given visa processing times, it may already be too late for businesses that rely on the summer season.
The summer is half over and well-known vacation areas are in turmoil because companies have not been able to find enough seasonal workers to handle the influx of tourists. Restaurants and bakeries on Cape Cod, amusement parks in the Midwest, hotels on lake islands, and fisheries in Alaska have been looking for temporary workers to fill jobs usually taken by trusted, experienced workers who return to work for them seasonally, sometimes year after year, on H-2B visas.
The statutory limit on the number of H-2B visas available each year is 66,000. However, until last year, an exemption from the limit for “returning workers” allowed more. In 2016, Congress failed to renew that exemption. In March 2017, H-2B visas for seasonal workers ran out. This means that employers relying on such seasonal workers, particularly those that constitute the summer tourist industry, have been left in the lurch. Congressmen from states that need seasonal workers failed to gain enough support for legislation to reinstate the exemption. In May, however, a provision was added to the omnibus spending bill that authorized Secretary of DHS John Kelly to increase the number of visas available from 66,000 to as high as 129,000. Employers have been anxiously waiting for more visas, but, until July 17, none have been forthcoming, and time was running out for companies that need revenue from the summer season to stay in business.
In June, Congressman William Keating (whose district includes Cape Cod) reported Secretary Kelly stated that his sense of the omnibus resolution was that Congress did not want to expand the number. Keating responded that there was “huge bipartisan support for [the increase]” and that it would not come at the cost of any U.S. worker jobs.
Employers are continuing to struggle to find U.S. workers. Lacking sufficient staff, businesses have had to cut their hours of operation, creating a ripple effect among U.S. workers in the tourist industry who are losing hours as well. Some businesses are turning to overtime. For many, that is not a sustainable model.
At the end of June, DHS announced that Kelly would use the authority granted by Congress to increase the visa number limit. On July 11, Senator Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who represents a state that uses more H-2B visas than any (besides Texas and Colorado), put a “hold” on President Donald Trump’s nominee for USCIS director, Lee Francis Cissna, until Kelly releases more H-2B visas.