The proposed changes to the H-1B (skilled worker visa program) has gotten a lot of national attention, but it is the fear of changes to the H-2B (unskilled worker visa program) that has many employers worried. Although it is accurate to say that the Obama administration placed tighter controls on the program, it would appear that the Trump administration is getting ready to place even tighter controls.
Changes were made last year, by the Department of Labor, promoted and supported by unions as well as foes of immigration, that requires employers to demonstrate that they aggressively attempted to recruit US workers first, before hiring through the H-2B program. They also need to demonstrate that the seasonal foreign workers are or would be paid the prevailing wage in the region for that job.
The number of foreign workers has also been curtailed due to Congresses not passing an exemption that would not count these returning workers in the annual 66,000 visa cap. This exemption has been routinely applied to foreign workers in the past.
In Maine, 10 percent of the 100,000 hospitality-based workers are in the H-2B program. In Cape Cod, where the cost of living is high, lower-wage workers typically do not maintain a year-round residence. In a strong economy like we have today, it is very difficult to hire and keep American workers for lower-wage, part-time jobs. According to a local immigration lawyer, Cape Cod companies, in the past, have brought in approximately 2,500 H-2B employees, but this year, that number is expected to drop to less than 1,000.
In the past, college students have filled many of these “summer jobs”. To think that we can return to this model is nothing more than nostalgic. The summer “season” now starts earlier and ends later (well into October). With classes resuming in early September, this makes it impossible for college students to fill the roles they had in the past.
The hospitality industry is not the only one affected. Allen Sylvester, president of American Tent & Table, Inc., a family-owned tent rental and party accessory business in Cape Cod, makes 85 to 90% of it’s profits in five months.
“Instead of bringing 3,000 workers here, we right now are bringing 300 workers,” said Jane Nichols Bishop, president of Peak Season Workforce, a family-owned business on Cape Cod that helps local companies secure annual H2B visas.
It is apparent that the new rules and policies surrounding the H-2B worker program are still in flux, but are poised to have a significant impact on local New England businesses that rely on them.
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