The Trump administration has announced plans to allow another 30,000 seasonal workers to come to the United States this year. That brings the total number of seasonal workers permitted this year to 96,000.
The decision is controversial. Opponents say the foreign workers take jobs that Americans should be doing and bring down wages for everyone. They also argue, with some merit, that a few who obtain the work visas, known as H-2Bs, overstay.
However, the additional visas are welcome news to thousands of employers who annually struggle to fill low-skill positions. These workers typically take jobs in landscaping, at resorts, in agriculture and construction.
Michael Biafore, President and CEO of Biafore Landscape and Development in Morgantown, told me recently that it’s nearly impossible to fill the jobs at his company with American workers. He told me high school students are usually too busy with summer vacations, sports and other activities. Biafore said a couple of college students studying landscaping architecture wanted to work in the office, not outside.
After I interviewed him on Talkline, other employers texted to tell me how they cannot find reliable help. They all have stories of how a worker shows up for a couple of days, does a little physical labor, and then stops coming to work.
Higher pay might entice a college student to work in the hot sun and get his hands dirty, but a landscaper who must shell out $25 or $30 an hour instead of $12 or $15 to spread mulch isn’t going to be in business very long.
As the Wall Street Journal reported, the foreign seasonal workers are necessary. “Landscapers, fisheries, county fairs and holiday resorts—including President Trump’s own golf and beach clubs—all use the H-2B program to fill lower-skilled jobs they say they can’t find Americans to do.”
Raising the cap helps for now, but it doesn’t solve the problem. The annual cap remains at 66,000 and Congress defers to the administration to decide whether to raise it. That means employers who miss out on the rush to qualify for the H-2B workers then deal with the uncertainty of whether more will be made available.
“For the last two years, rather than come to a decision as to what the right number is, Congress has simply chosen not to act,” Labor Secretary Alex Acosta told Congress last month while advocating for an increase in the work visas.
The problem is further complicated by a tight labor market. Figures released last week put the nation’s unemployment rate 3.6 percent, the lowest since December, 1969.
The H-2B program gets lumped in with the immigration debate, but it’s not really about immigration. These visas are for temporary employment for non-immigrants for a limited time. Employers are required to first try to recruit American workers before utilizing the H-2B applicants. However, with full employment and the cold reality that there are some jobs most Americans just won’t do, the H-2B visa workers are necessary to the U.S. economy.