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Government Affairs: The H-2B guest-worker program gets potential one-year increase

April 3, 2018 -  By

Taking advantage of the “must-pass” omnibus federal spending bill for fiscal year 2018-2019, advocates for the H-2B guest-worker visa program managed to get an extension of the authority for the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security to increase the 66,000 statutory cap on H-2B visas. This provision is like one that was included in last year’s spending bill.

Increase not automatic

The increase in visas is not automatic. Under the provision, the Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen must determine, in consultation with the Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, that there is economic need. If the Homeland Security Secretary determines that there is need, she has the authority to increase the cap up to the number of visas issued in 2007, or about 128,000.

Too little, too late

Last year, the process of determining need and issuing an increase in the cap took then Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly until July. Since the authority expires at the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30, there was little time left on the clock to save the season for most landscape contractors needing workers. In addition, the increase was only for an additional 15,000 visas.

Attention focuses on Homeland Security

The attention of advocates for the H-2B program, such as AmericanHort and the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP), now focuses on encouraging the Homeland Security Secretary to speed up the process for increasing the available visas.

Advocates are hopeful that, having gone through the process last year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will be able to do the coordination with the Labor Department and issue the increase in a more timely manner this time around.

Demand far exceeds the number of visas

The H-2B visa cap of 66,00 is split in half, with the first tranche of 33,000 allocated to the first half of the federal fiscal year and the other 33,000 for the second half. Demand is so great for H-2B workers that DHS announced on December 21 that it had reached the Congressionally mandated H-2B cap for the first half of this year, less than two and a half months into the fiscal year.

On Feb. 21, DHS began receiving H-2B visa applications for the second half of fiscal year 2018. In five days, DHS received applications from businesses for 47,000 visas for the 33,000 available visas. The available visas were assigned randomly by DHS to applicants.

What’s down the road?

The landscape industry seems to be stuck in a situation akin to Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day.” Each year we seem to be successful in getting some relief from the H-2B visa cap, only to find ourselves having to go back and do it all over when the fiscal year ends. The amount of volunteer and staff advocacy efforts and resources that are committed each year to simply trying to maintain the status quo are enormous. This annual push prevents those resources from being used to secure longer-term solutions to the seasonal labor problem.

OK, I’m now taking a deep breath…

Here is what we need to do

First, we need to muster our efforts to convince the Homeland Security Secretary to raise the cap under the authority just given to her. A number of senators have drafted a letter to Secretary Nielsen urging her to quickly raise the cap. Advocacy organizations such as AmericanHort and NALP played a large role in getting senators to sign on to that letter. Call your senator and urge him or her to call Secretary Nielsen.

Second, call your senator and let him or her know the harm that this guest-worker situation is having on your business. Ask them to urge their leadership to move on the “Save our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act of 2017” (S. 792). This bill would provide the permanent cap relief our industry needs. The bill has been sitting in the Senate Judiciary Committee since March 2017 with no action.

Third, call the staff at AmericanHort (202-789-2900) and NALP (800-395-2522) and thank them. I’m in touch with them on a frequent basis and I know how hard they work every day against great odds for our industry. It’s only through their relentless work, backed by their landscape contractor members that we got any H-2B cap relief this year.

Last, check out “Groundhog Day.” Even if you have already seen it it’s a good laugh, something we all need right now.

Photo: Jeffrey via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

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Gregg Robertson

About the Author:

Gregg Robertson, Landscape Management's government relations blogger, is a government relations consultant for the Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association (PLNA) and president of Conewago Ventures. From 2002 until May 2013 he served as president of PLNA. Reach him at gregg.robertson@conewagoventures.com.

2 Comments on "Government Affairs: The H-2B guest-worker program gets potential one-year increase"

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  1. Thanks for making this part of this issue of the magazine. Most of us in this situation who have reputable agents that are trying to process our visa needs have been advising us to call, write and plead with our elected officials. I have done so so much that they no longer want to hear from me I guess. Getting workers in May or June for those of us in the DEEP south is too late. The last week in February we were in the 80s and our market wanted action. Missing March and April and now looks like May is not beneficial to anyone in the deep south who is waiting. How about allowing southern states to get the first cap and more northern states for the second cap. This would be one step in a balanced approach. another step would be to allow PROVEN Employers and returning workers priority over new businesses and new workers. This wold help illuminate the risk of criminal activity and well and having repeat success in the match up of proven and vetted employers and H-2B workers.

  2. Lenace H. Vaughn says:

    Thanks also for publsihing this article. This is a very serious issue for those of us in the Landscape industry. We rely on these workers to keep our doors open. Without them we will not exist. We, like the previous post would recommend the first half of the cap to be offered to those in the South whose season is earlier than those in the northern states. Also, instead of Cap relief, why will the government not issue a Returning Worker Exemption as they have in the past? This would allow for everyone who has workers who have been here before to work. This would include those workers who have worked for the employer in the past, followed all the rules, and have caused no trouble with the law. We are all trying to do this the lawful way and get the workers here as we should. This is causing much heartache and loss of business by not having enough workers here to fulfill our contracts and customer needs. We got our workers here last year on August 15. We were so thankful to see them but it was so late in the year that we needed them 4 months prior to their actual date of arrival. The government needs to understand time is of the essence and we need these people here now. Please allow the RETURNING workers to come back now and then let’s decide how many more we need with Cap Relief. Again, let’s make a decision now and not wait until it’s too late in the season for it to matter and please get some permanent cap relief or returning worker exemption legislation put into place.

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