An April 2020 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that as unemployment rates fell, usage of the H-2B visa program to fill non-agricultural seasonal jobs increased, but that flaws in the program created uncertainty for employers about the program’s ability to meet their workforce needs, and constrains employers’ growth.
Those findings won’t surprise any Maine employers who have tried to use the program and been shut out by the 33,000 H-2B visa cap for each half of each fiscal year. While Congress has authorized the release of additional visas several years in a row, the additional numbers consistently have fallen far short of the demand.
In a summary of the report’s highlights, the GAO noted that the H-2B employers they surveyed stated that
business planning was affected by uncertainty about whether they would be able to hire the number of H-2B visa workers they requested given the statutory cap. Employers who did not receive all H-2B visas requested under the statutory cap in 2018 were somewhat more likely than those who did to report declines in revenue …. and purchases of goods and services. However, GAO found no clear pattern in changes to the number of U.S. workers hired by these employers. Employers interviewed by GAO varied in how they adjusted to having fewer H-2B workers. For example, two seafood employers reported shutting down operations in the absence of H-2B workers, and employers said that barriers to finding U.S. workers included remote location and seasonality of the work.
The report also found that counties with H-2B employers tended to have higher wages and lower unemployment rates than counties without.
The GAO’s recommendations are disappointing in that they do not include suggested improvements, such as a permanent increase in the number of annually available H-2B visas despite the clear evidence, not requiring further study, of demand for H-2B visas far exceeding supply year after year. Instead, the GAO report charges the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor to come up with improvements to propose to Congress, which does not bode well for prospects for swift change.
You can find the report here.