Increase in H-2B Visa Availability for Seasonal Workers Sparks Controversy

Shortly after President Biden announced that he planned to make an additional 22,000 seasonal worker H-2B visas available this summer, adding to the current 66,000 visas previously given yearly, ten worker organizations including United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA) sent a letter on Tuesday to the Department of Labor and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) opposing the decision. 

“Instead of raising the H-2B cap,” the letter said, “the Biden Administration should take steps to protect all workers – both U.S. and migrant – by strengthening labor protections in the H-2B program.” 

The organizations claimed that people have dropped out of the workforce, which typically employs workers on seasonal visas, and there are currently millions of unemployed workers in the occupations, where the unemployment rate is higher than the national average of 6%. They claimed that this change in the cap of H-2B visas will “undermine efforts to get workers of all status back on their feet” and “expose more H-2B workers to the egregious abuses that pervade the program.” 

The organizations asked instead that the government deny petitions for H-2B visas in industries with a higher than 6% unemployment rate; crack down on H-2B employers, who have broken laws; require them to pay H-2B employees the prevailing wage; and provide protections to H-2B workers. 

LiUNA said in a press release, “it is deeply troubling and disappointing that the Biden Administration would increase the number of available H-2B visas without strengthening protections for all workers – both foreign and U.S. The H-2B visa program is a deeply flawed program which has been misused by contractors who use the visas to hire a captive foreign workforce who have no voice and very little recourse when employers cheat or fail to provide safe working conditions.”

In the DHS press release announcing the additional visas, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas claimed that the increase in visas will be a benefit. “The H-2B program is designed to help U.S. employers fill temporary seasonal jobs, while safeguarding the livelihoods of American workers. … This supplemental increase also demonstrates DHS’s commitment to expanding lawful pathways for opportunity in the United States to individuals from the Northern Triangle.”

The expanded temporary visas are available through a temporary final rule, and 6,000 of the visas are earmarked for workers from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. DHS explained that employers had reached out expressing a need for temporary guest workers. 

“The additional visas will only be made available to employers that attest that, if they do not receive workers under the cap increase, they are likely to suffer irreparable harm,” the press release explained. The rule will also allow for H-2B workers to be hired, who are already in the United States, without seeking approval of an additional petition.