H-2B Worker Visa Program Significantly Underutilized

Originally published by: Replacement ContractorApril 3, 2018
by Gary Thill

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Specialty contractors such as roofers who rely on foreign guest workers to fill seasonal labor shortages may be a bit confused. First reports surfaced of a serious shortage in the number of H-2B visas available compared to the demand — 82,000 applications for 66,000 allotments. Then Congress stepped in and raised the cap to nearly 130,000 visas to seemingly save the day.

But contractors can’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. That’s because it’s still up to the Department of Homeland Security to actually issue the visas. Last year, despite a Congressional induced cap increase, DHS issued only an additional 15,000 visas, thanks to an additional caveat that businesses had to prove “irreparable harm” without visa allotments, said Alexis Moch, federal legislative director for NAHB.

“Congress’s omnibus bill hands discretion to DHS to issue additional visas, but there’s no guarantee what DHS will do with that,” Moch warned.

That uncertainty comes amid some of the worst labor shortages in recent history. With unemployment near just 4%, many specialty contractors are having difficulty meeting the continued demand for remodeling and renovation. For example, the most recent NAHB statistics show that nearly 60% of roofers are facing labor shortages.

The expected H-2B visa shortage will only acerbate that problem. “The H-2B program is critical for many employers, including numerous NRCA members, who often cannot find local workers to fill job opening during the busy summer season,” said Jim Barr, NRCA’s Chairman and president of Barr Roofing, in a letter to Congress. He added that the program is “critical for continued economic growth of the roofing industry.”

But as all trades deal with the labor shortage, it’s no longer just roofers who are looking to H-B2 for help, Moch said. “As the labor market tightens, there’s a heightened interest in the program,” she said. “There are a lot of businesses out there that are feeling the squeeze and saying what are my options?”

While H-2B may be an option, there’s a lot contractors need to understand about the program to determine whether it’s right for them. Here are three key considerations:

1. Timing 
Businesses that are just starting to think about H-2B visas for this year’s workload are probably coming to the table too late, Moch said. That’s because the lengthy process requires Department of Labor certification along with a number of other applications. Employers must also prove that they’re not able to fill the positions with U.S. employees. “It’s a very rigorous process to get there,” Moch said. “You have to have exhausted all options and demonstrate a good faith effort to advertise the position.”

2. Cost
Along with applications come fees including a $460 form and filing fee, not to mention all the time it takes to deal with the government red tape the program requires. “The program is extremely costly and complicated, yet employers turn to it because it is the only way they can hire legal seasonal workers,” Barr said.

3. Uncertainty 
Even after jumping through those hoops, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be granted the visas. With an ongoing labor shortage, the demand for H-2B visas rises, and it’s become an annual need for Congress to increase the allotments. “It’s highly competitive and there are no guarantees,” Moch warned.

Going forward, NAHB and other trade groups are advocating for a special construction-focused visa program, especially with no end to the labor shortage in sight. Moch added that every H-2B worker sustains 4.64 American jobs, according to the H-2B Workforce Coalition. “We look at H-2B as a workforce program,” she said. “The next generation of skilled labor is not going to appear over night. So this program is a stop gap for business that aren’t able to get those workers domestically.”