Employers with non-agricultural seasonal labor needs can petition for H-2B temporary worker visas, but with limited exceptions, only 66,000 visas are available annually, divided equally between the two halves of the federal fiscal year. Demand for H-2B visas chronically outstrips the supply. For two years running, Congress has increased the number of available H-2B visas, but these have been short term fixes that expired at the end of their respective fiscal years.
In the absence of a permanent meaningful increase in the number of H-2B visas, the government has tried varying approaches to deal with the excess demand. After years of conducting a lottery, for FY 2019, the government instead launched a first-come first-served system based on the time stamp, up to the millisecond, for when each application was electronically filed with the Department of Labor’s iCERT portal.
For seasonal jobs beginning on or after April 1, 2019 through September 30, 2019, the first moment that an employer could initiate the process through the iCERT portal was at 12:00.00.000 a.m. on January 1, 2019. Within minutes, the iCERT portal crashed due to the high volume of submissions.
On January 2, 2019, the Department of Labor announced that it received applications for over 97,800 seasonal positions via the iCERT portal within the first five minutes after it opened.
Many Maine employers vying for any of the 33,000 available H-2B visas to help meet their increased labor needs for the spring/summer 2019 season are likely to find themselves shut out. Employers seeking details about which workers are cap-exempt can check here.
Congress should enact a permanent and substantial increase in the number of H-2B visas so that employers can look to the program as one that can be relied on to meet their seasonal labor needs. With unemployment lower than 4% nationally and in Maine (where it has been below 4% for a record 36 months), there is no excuse for inaction.