BERLIN – With the summer season quickly approaching and uncertainties surrounding the availability of a seasonal workforce for some key industries locally and across the Eastern Shore, Congressman Andy Harris (R-Md.) last week implored the federal government to release more H-2B visas.
The H-2B guest worker program provides access to seasonal temporary labor to businesses that can prove they were unable to hire willing and qualified American workers in certain non-agricultural seasonal roles. U.S. employers are allowed to bring foreign nationals to this country to fill temporary, non-agricultural jobs with H-2B status. Unlike the J-1 visas, the workers are generally not students and there is not a work and travel component connected to the H-2B visas.
The H-2B visa workers are seasonal and are relied upon heavily by the tourism, hospitality, landscaping, seafood and construction industries, for example.
There are 66,000 H-2B visas made available each year, allocated in half for the summer season and half for the winter season.
However, because of acute labor shortages in certain sectors of the economy, the Department of Homeland Security made an additional 35,000 H-2B visas available for the remainder of the federal fiscal year.
However, the additional 35,000 H-2B visas were expected to be released by April 1, but that deadline has come and gone, and the supplemental seasonal workforce visas had still not been released as of midweek, with May quickly approaching and many of the businesses that rely on them nearing their peak season. To that end, Harris this week fired off a letter to the federal departments that control the H-2B program to release them as quickly as possible.
“While I was pleased with the Department of Homeland Security’s announcement on the imminent release of 35,000 supplemental H-2B visas for the summer work season, although more work remains, I am disappointed that nearly a month later they have yet to make these visas available,” he said. “I have repeatedly stressed to both the Departments of Homeland Security and Labor that time is of the essence with respect to the release of these supplemental visas.”
Harris said the seasonal Eastern Shore businesses that rely heavily on the seasonal labor force are already feeling the pinch because of the shortage.
“Each day of bureaucratic delay is another day of cancelled contracts, lost income and lost jobs for our seasonal employers on the Eastern Shore and throughout the country,” he said. “The busy summer season is upon us and businesses are desperate for the labor necessary to meet consumer demand.
He continued, “I urge the departments to recognize the damage, in some cases irreversible, that seasonal businesses sustain as they await access to their seasonal labor force and to do everything in their power to make these supplemental H-2B visas available to our seasonal employers without delay.”
Harris pointed out the number of guest worker visas applied for stands at 136,000, with only 35,000 still available.
Harris said the shortfall could be particularly hard on certain seasonal industries across his district on the Eastern Shore, including crab picking and processing plants.
Harris is also a co-sponsor of proposed legislation titled the H-2B Returning Worker Exemption Act, which could be a permanent solution to the chronic H-2B visa issues that plague seasonal businesses, particularly on the Eastern Shore.
The bill would exempt workers who previously held H-2B visas in one of the last three fiscal years from counting against the annual 66,000 statutory cap for the supplemental visas.