Businesses prepare for the worst as H-2B shortages hit close to home
- Restaurants in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and other establishments across the country that rely on seasonal labor are likely headed toward a second consecutive year of seasonal labor shortages, Public Radio International (PRI) reports. Congress raised the H-2B visa cap in March as part of the latest omnibus spending bill, PRI said, but the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has yet to provide the extra visas.
- Most Cape Cod businesses depend on temporary, non-immigrant seasonal workers with H-2B visas, according to PRI. Summer is a lucrative season for area restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions, and seasonal workers are mostly college students and people from Jamaica and the Philippines, who return to the Cape every summer, one business owner told PRI.
- The federal government issues 33,000 H-2B visas for each of the year's six-month halves — the same number for summer months and winter months. But a high demand for seasonal workers means the allotment of government-issued visas isn't enough. Last year, Cape Cod businesses applied for 3,000 visas, PRI said, but they weren't granted until after Labor Day, when the tourist season officially ends.
The shortage of H-2B visas remains a threat for businesses that rely on seasonal help, particularly for (but not exclusively) smaller, local enterprises. Last year, some pondered closing shop altogether due to the problem. In January, DHS said it will switch to a first come, first serve basis for granting H-2B visa applications in the second half of FY 2018, but that doesn't apply to those holding out for extra hands this summer.
In reality, the story playing out in Cape Cod is hitting a range of industries across the U.S., from crab-picking facilities on Maryland's Eastern Shore to lake-side resorts in Minnesota. This begs the long-running question: Why aren't U.S.-born workers in line to fill vacancies? The topic is highly complex and answers vary widely; CEOs and business advocates cite a lack of skilled workers in the domestic talent market, as well as a general lack of interest, while organizations like the non-profit Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) call these points "false assumptions."
Meanwhile, the labor market remains highly competitive and the unemployment rate is pegged at 3.9%, giving skilled American workers the advantage in searching for new opportunities. In an April 2018 report, CIS criticized the H-2B program, saying it "adversely affects opportunities for American workers with low education and skill levels." Employers face a choice: raise wages and benefits (with the caveat, some say, of increasing prices) to compete for U.S. workers, or weather the H-2B visa shortage until legislators and/or the Trump administration can provide a solution.