Problems with H-2B visa program have employers sitting, waiting

Carnivals unable to hire domestic workers; H-2B is only option to fill positions

AT: Pam Sherborne

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Despite years of petitioning U.S. congressmen and senators for change in the H-2B visa program, donating money to the cause and making trips to the nation’s capital for the cause, many carnival owners are finding themselves right back in the same place they have been for the past several years.

Some are (once again) sitting, waiting, pondering and wondering about the upcoming season and if they will have a sufficient workforce to operate. They have no idea whether or not they will be able to receive any workers from the visa program under which employers may hire seasonal foreign workers.

“Honestly, we are getting a little sick and tired of it,” said Michael Wood, Wood Entertainment Co., an independent ride operator based in San Antonio, Texas. 

His sentiment is echoed by Mary Talley, Talley Amusements, based in Fort Worth, Texas. 

 “We all are getting pretty annoyed with the whole thing,” Talley said.  

There has been no real push in Washington, D.C., to put a permanent fix on the program. Every year, the cap on the number of foreign workers allowed under the program is reached quickly and falls significantly short of the need.

The official cap is 66,000 visas awarded in two 33,000 increments, for dates of work Oct. 1-March 31 and April 1-Sept. 30. Employers are required to wait until  90 days from the first day of need to apply.

The cap for the first half of fiscal year 2019 was reached Dec. 6, 2018 and Feb. 22, 2019 for the second half. The greatest need for workers falls into the second half. There were 97,800 applications for the 33,000 visas this year. 

For the past two years, the Secretary of Homeland Security released 15,000 additional visas over the cap, but, said Wood, it was really too little, too late for many of his colleagues, not to mention the other employers from other seasonal businesses. 

Opponents of the program say these employers should hire locally. The H-2B program requires all employers wanting to apply for foreign workers to first advertise domestically. Proof of this has to be submitted.

“Do you want to know how many domestic applicants I have had that actually said they would take the job since 2006?” Talley asked. “Four. And when it came time for them to show up, they didn’t.”

Wood agreed. He simply cannot find enough domestic workers willing to go on the road. The current low unemployment rate, although good for the country, is not helping their challenges.

Opponents also have expressed that there is abuse in the program, but the program requires rigorous paperwork and oversight.

“And this program has been lumped into the contentious issue of immigration,”  Wood said. “This is not an immigration program. This is a nonimmigrant program. When the visa runs out, they go home. There is no  pathway to citizenship with this program.” 

Wood said language in the federal spending bill released Feb. 14,  2019, states the Secretary of Homeland Security, currently Kirstijen Nielsen, may increase the total number of  visas by not more than the highest number of H-2B visas who participated in the H-2B returning worker program in any fiscal year. 

Congress passed worker exemptions for fiscal years 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2016. The highest number of these exemptions was 69,320 in 2007. This new bill doesn’t revive the returning worker exemption, but uses those numbers as a benchmark by which to establish an addition to the cap limit – in this case, 69,320.

Wood said that same language was passed in December before the federal government shutdown. 

“She (Nielsen) can release that number or anything up to that right now,” Wood said. “But, we have no idea whether she will do anything or when.”

Wood’s operating season is basically divided into two parts. He normally applies for half his work force during the first half of the year. He received 20 workers so far, but applied for 20 more. He has no idea if he will get them or when. If he doesn’t have a sufficient workforce, he will be forced to make some difficult decisions.

“And it is not just my business that gets hurt from this,” he said. “It is all the other businesses down stream such as the fairs, the vendors, the suppliers.”

Wood already had to put a delivery date on hold for a new 150-foot, Lamberink-manufacturedwheel because he didn’t know if he would have the workforce to run it. He will not have that new ride for the 2019 season. 

Talley hits the road early in the year so her applications go in the first cap. She was able to get approval for 80 foreign workers. But she worries about her colleagues.

“I don’t know how in the world we are expected to invest millions of dollars in rides like we do when we have no idea what our workforce will be,” Talley said. 

There has been a lot of money going into lobbying  and petitioning for a change in this program. Wood said the Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA) spends $350,000 every year.

“I am involved with another association called the Seasonal Employment Alliance,” he said. “That association is predominately landscapers and it spends about as much. I would guess that there has been $100,000 spent every month on all things H-2B.”

This article appears in the APRIL 2019 issue of Amusement Today.
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