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A seasonal labor solution

Employers and policy experts praise the expansion of the H-2B visa program

Lindy’s Seafood in Woolford, Md., relies on temporary H-2B workers from Mexico to help process crabs during high season. Photo by Carmen Molina Acosta/University of Maryland via AP, file

A seasonal labor solution

A white picket fence encircles the cheerful wooden yellow exterior of Mac’s Fish House, a seafood restaurant in Provincetown, Mass. Cracker-crusted blue fish, sourced off the coast from Maryland to Maine and served over creamed spinach and mashed potatoes, is a favorite dish at the establishment. The restaurant is one of five run by Mac Hay, the owner of Mac’s Seafood, which employs over 300 workers in a wholesale seafood business and five seafood markets, in addition to the restaurants.

The population of Provincetown, home to about 3,000 permanent residents, explodes to about 25,000 in the summer, and Hay is hard-pressed to recruit enough workers to staff his restaurants during the hectic season. To meet the need, he relies heavily on the H-2B visa program, which authorizes foreign nonagricultural guest workers. “Without the program, I wouldn’t have a business,” he said.

Thousands of U.S. employers like Hay depend on H-2B seasonal workers. The Biden administration announced in December it was authorizing an additional 20,000 H-2B visas for the winter season, for a total of 53,000. Employers who rely on seasonal workers praised the move, and policy experts argue expanding the program could protect American workers and businesses while reducing illegal border crossings.

Migrant workers on H-2B visas can make more money in a week than they would in a month or more in their home countries. An H-2B visa enabled Isidra Arellanes Cruz to put her four children in school in Mexico and buy a house. Cruz works eight months of the year in the United States, spending hours picking meat from crabs at her job in Chesapeake Bay, Md., where she has traveled from Oaxaca, Mexico, for 28 years, she told MSNBC. She said she was so poor in Mexico that her children went barefoot to school.

Restrictive immigration policies during the COVID-19 pandemic shrank the number of foreign nationals working in the United States, and a report by the National Foundation for American Policy shows that American workers are not better off. The loss of migrant workers contributed to empty supermarket shelves and a lack of company growth. Hay said he cut the operating hours of his Provincetown location: The restaurant now provides dinner six days a week and only serves lunch on Saturday and Sunday. On Tuesday it closes.

It’s not just the seafood industry feeling the labor shortage squeeze. Landscaping, construction, and hospitality industries, all reliant on H-2B workers, are affected. Employers are requesting 136,555 positions for this summer, more than four times the H-2B visa summer cap of 33,000.

Some labor unions have protested Biden’s decision to increase this year’s winter H-2B cap. A statement published by the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) warns the program “is deeply flawed and has been used as a tool by unscrupulous contractors who bypass local workers to hire a captive foreign workforce, who have very little recourse when they are cheated of their wages or hurt on the job.”

But David Bier with the CATO Institute called the idea that companies are avoiding hiring U.S. workers “absurd.” Before U.S. employers can recruit migrant workers for H-2B jobs, they must recruit U.S. workers and post the job on a federal government website. Employers must offer the job to former employees, reach out to a labor union representative, and submit a request that the state’s workforce agency recruit and refer unemployed U.S. workers to the job. Businesses must offer the prevailing wage for the occupation in their area, according to the Department of Labor, regardless of whether they are looking for entry-level workers.

The U.S. government shouldn’t have a policy that creates a labor shortage in seasonal workers in order to recruit U.S. workers, Bier argued. Though H-2B wages are rising at twice the rate of other industries, the Department of Labor certified that 95 percent of H-2B positions are unfilled by U.S. workers. Most U.S. workers want a job that will last for a few years rather than temporary, seasonal positions, Bier noted.

He added that the H-2B program is an alternative to illegal immigration: There has been an inverse relationship between illegal border crossings and H-2B program expansions throughout history, he noted. H-2B workers have more oversight and rights than the average worker in the American economy.

About 80 of Hay’s employees are H-2B and J-1 (foreign student) visa workers. Hay said every H-2B worker he hires supports three or four jobs for U.S. workers. Seasonal migrant workers staff “back of house” positions—prep cooks, counter attendants, dishwashers, dining room attendants—that Hay cannot fill with U.S. workers. He can’t employ Americans for the more desired positions of bartender or manager without a kitchen staff, he said.

Currently, a lottery system determines whether businesses get the workers they need. “This creates a huge level of uncertainty … on both the employer and employee side,” Hay said. Employees go home not knowing if they can come back. Hay argues for reinstating the returning worker exemption, which would allow seasonal workers who return to the same employer not to count against the 66,000 annual cap for new H-2B visas.

For him, hiring migrant workers who want to better their lives and support their families is not only essential for company growth, it gives his vocation more meaning: “We become a much more purposeful business.”

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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