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Seasonal Worker Visa Boost a Loss for Unions Backing Biden (1)

April 20, 2021, 3:22 PM; Updated: April 20, 2021, 5:34 PM

The Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday it would offer employers 22,000 additional seasonal guestworker visas in coming months despite a last-ditch effort by leading U.S. unions to stop the move.

The agency cited the continued effort to reopen the U.S. economy in its announcement of the new visas, adding that “recent engagement” with employers demonstrated the need for more guest workers. “Businesses across the country, despite attempts at recruitment and hiring of U.S. workers, report critical vacancies,” the agency said in a statement. “This leaves already vulnerable businesses in danger of significant potential revenue loss.”

The organized labor coalition had appealed to President Joe Biden’s pledges to champion union interests in a letter Tuesday to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Hours after Bloomberg Law reported that the Cabinet members had struck the deal late last week, the unions urged Walsh and Mayorkas to not raise the cap on H-2B visas, which are often used to bring in temporary foreign workers for landscaping, hospitality, and seafood processing.

“With millions of unemployed workers in top H-2B occupations, increasing the cap would undermine efforts to get workers of all status back on their feet,” wrote North America’s Building Trades Unions, United Food and Commercial Workers, UNITE HERE, and more than a half-dozen other unions. “It would also expose more H-2B workers to the egregious abuses that pervade the program. Neither of these outcomes is acceptable.”

The unions sent a stern warning that extending more visas would be met with strong opposition by some of the president’s most valuable stakeholders. Unions have largely welcomed many of the Biden administration’s early moves.

Another signatory was Laborers’ International Union of North America, the organization in which Walsh got his start in the labor movement at a Boston local. LIUNA, which represents landscapers, says workers in that sector can be replaced by foreign workers on H-2B visas who toil for lower wages and under less favorable working conditions.

Media representatives for DOL and DHS didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment about the union letter.

Businesses Applaud More Visas

Employers and a bipartisan group of lawmakers have been calling on the Biden administration to extend additional seasonal visas for the current fiscal year ending in October, after businesses claimed all 66,000 visas previously available for fiscal 2021. That includes Democratic U.S. senators in Virginia and Maryland; economies in those states rely on seafood businesses, which contend they can’t find enough American workers to fill job openings in the spring and summer.

“We appreciate the administration recognizing the dire straits of seasonal businesses that are experiencing extreme labor workforce shortages right now,” said Gray Delany, executive director of the Seasonal Employment Alliance, an H-2B advocacy group representing more than 2,000 employers that use the program.

A recent survey of SEA members revealed that of the 1,974 American worker applicants seeking jobs last month, 577 interviewed for those jobs, 156 showed up on their first scheduled day of work, and only 109 remained with their companies as of March 31.

“We’re looking at a 90% dropoff” for U.S. applicants, Delany said. “It’s not a sustainable way to run a business.”

Many employers are thankful for the additional H-2B visas, but more must be done to address seasonal workforce issues moving forward, said Jon Baselice, executive director of immigration policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“Businesses across several industries have a significant number of seasonal job openings that go unfilled year in and year out, which is due in large part to the arbitrarily low annual quota on H-2B visa issuance,” he said. “It is long past time for Congress to reform the H-2B program in a manner that reflects today’s market realities.”

Changes Needed

Employers and unions agree the H-2B program needs reforms, but few agree on how to achieve change.

The union coalition called on Walsh and Mayorkas to revamp the H-2B system to provide enhanced worker protections, such as denying H-2B certifications in industries with an unemployment rate higher than 6%—meaning they have a surplus of available labor—and issuing more debarments of employers who violate wage and safety laws governing guestworkers.

“The Biden Administration has promised to be the most pro-labor and pro-worker Administration in U.S. history,” the unions said in the letter. “The Administration must refrain from issuing more H-2B visas this year during this time of pandemic-related high unemployment.”

(Updated with additional reporting starting at paragraph nine. )

To contact the reporters on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bloomberglaw.com; Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com; Travis Tritten at ttritten@bgov.com

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