Seasonal industries clamor for approval of guest workers
by Foster, on News
By Vicki Needham
Business groups are pleading with the Obama administration to speed up the approval process for seasonal guest workers.
Advocates for the hotel, hospitality and landscaping industries are among those urging the Labor, Homeland Security and State departments to address what they say is a severe backlog in H-2B visa applications for temporary workers.
Laurie Flanagan, co-chairman of the H-2B Workforce Coalition, warned that the delays are “having a severe economic impact on businesses that need their workers this spring.”“Almost daily, I speak to small-business owners who are forced to explain to long-time customers that they cannot meet their spring contract obligations because they have no idea when their seasonal H-2B workers will arrive due to government processing delays,” Flanagan said.
“What is even more devastating is that many of these individuals are actually looking at closing their businesses or laying off American workers,” she said.
The Labor Department has acknowledged the backlog and implemented emergency procedures for reviewing applications, but numerous delays persist, according to the coalition.
Paul Mendelsohn of the National Association of Landscape Professionals, a group that is part of the coalition, said businesses are frustrated by a “lack of consistency” in the processing of the visa applications, with some being approved faster than others.
Many of the businesses argue the delays are largely the fault of federal agencies that have added layers of new regulations requiring expanded searches for U.S.-based labor, along with more rules on wage levels and working conditions.
Businesses say they are being asked to provide additional and, in some cases, duplicate documents to prove their status as seasonal employers.
The Labor Department has blamed the delays, which started last year, on a sharp rise in visa applications.
By the time the department caught up late in the year, Congress had passed a spending bill that included several changes to the visa program, including one that would allow returning workers to go beyond the 66,000-worker cap.
“As a result of the time needed to implement the program changes, processing times increased,” the department wrote in a March letter to Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.).
The Labor Department has cited the appropriations bill, computer software issues with the electronic filing system and a large increase in demand as reasons why the process has slowed down.
The H-2B coalition suspects that a compressed review process to 90 days from 120 also has contributed significantly to the backlog. Employers have to wait to apply for workers until 90 days before the date they need them to start work.
The H-2B process is crucial to landscaping companies, which typically employ about half of the foreign workers approved each year.
Many landscaping businesses have a very small window to beef up their payrolls for the busy spring season, Mendelsohn said, which means even a sight delay in the visa process can prove devastating.
“There is a significant impact occurring to our businesses,” he said. “We do know that a number of businesses will have to cut back on contracts.”
At least two dozen lawmakers — led by Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet (D) and Cory Gardner (R), Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), and Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) — have sent letters to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson expressing their concerns about the delays in visa processing. Bennet is up for reelection this year in what is likely to be a tough race.
Theresa Dileo, director of human resources for Sea Island Resorts, said the resort didn’t receive any of the 178 workers by mid-March, when it had requested them, just ahead of its peak season.
At this point, the resort doesn’t expect most of them to arrive until April 18, about a month
Dileo has joined in the letter-writing campaign to Congress and in appeals to the White House to push the process along.
She called the H-2B program a “game-changer” for the five-star resort, which is on an island just off Georgia’s coast.
All told, the resort boosts its labor force to 2,100 for the busy tourism season, up from 1,700 during the slow months. It fills the gap with guest workers when no seasonal help can be found from local or national searches.
Bob Johnson, president of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, called the visa situation “very frustrating” because it has become “increasingly more challenging for us to have a strong seasonal staff that doesn’t mind the mobility of the traveling aspect of this industry.”
He said businesses, many family-owned, are “sweating bullets” hoping that their workers arrive before they are faced with canceling their summer contracts, which may include state and county fairs across the country.
Johnson said he has asked for a meeting with State Department officials about the “urgent crisis.”
“It seems like we’re challenged every step of the way,” he said.
Johnson said that the outdoor amusement industry brings up to about 5,000 guest workers to complement 15,000 year-round employees.
Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president at AmericanHort, said he and his group are holding meetings with all of the government agencies and working with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.
“It’s a mind-bender,” Regelbrugge said.
He said there is little recourse for businesses whose applications are delayed, so they must turn to lawmakers for help.
“Failure to get seasonal workers here on time is devastating,” Regelbrugge said.
He said that there is no going back in time to recapture the lost spring business.
“That’s more than some firms can bear financially,” he said.