Employers that rely on the H-2B seasonal foreign worker program are beginning 2019 in a bind.

The Labor Department’s electronic filing system for the visas, iCERT, went down early Jan. 1, leaving employers unable to start the process for obtaining foreign labor for the spring season. The DOL has promised an update on the system’s status on Jan. 3.

The system outage was the result of massive demand, with employers requesting 97,800 H-2B workers even though only 33,000 visas are available, the DOL said in a Jan. 2 update on its website.

The iCERT crash has left thousands of employers “in the lurch, not knowing when they are going to be able to file,” 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. “This is likely going to delay the arrival of their workers in April,” he said in a Jan. 1 email to Bloomberg Law.

Because H-2B visas for both spring and summer get used up so quickly, all employers that need workers during that time are listing April 1—the first day of the spring/summer season—as their workers’ start date, Delany said.

That means all those employers also were jumping on iCERT on Jan. 1, the first day they could start the H-2B labor certification process with the DOL.

“Within the first five minutes of opening the semi-annual H-2B certification process,” iCERT “had an unprecedented demand for H-2B certifications,” the DOL said on its website. “With more than thirty-times the user demand on the iCERT system compared to last year on January 1, the iCERT system experienced a system disruption.”

The DOL is working to get the system back up and running and will provide 24 hours’ notice before it’s again operational, the agency said.

Increasing Demand

H-2B visas are popular in seasonal industries such as landscaping, amusement, forestry, and hospitality.

Demand for the visas has grown exponentially in the past few years, prompting the DOL to time the receipt of employer filings down to the millisecond and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to hold lotteries for the visas. The number of applications the DOL received in fiscal year 2017 jumped more than 25 percent from FY 2016. Applications in FY 2018 were 5.4 percent higher than the number filed in FY 2017.

Congress also has given the Homeland Security Department authority to double H-2B visas in the past two years, although the agency has only added 15,000 each time.

The 66,000 visas allowed each year are divided equally between the winter and spring seasons. Spring traditionally has been the season with heavier use, likely the result of the landscaping industry dominating the visa program. But demand in the winter is also rising, with the USCIS’s announcement that the cap had been reached creeping earlier and earlier each year.

Employers that were locked out of the winter visas also are likely jumping into the pool seeking H-2B visas April 1.