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After absorbing nearly half of the damage caused by the pandemic shutdowns, the leisure and hospitality industry is still in a deep hole, losing 2.5 million jobs from early last year.
“There just isn’t enough workforce to fill these places,” said Lynn Minges, president and CEO of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, which estimated the industry has about 70,000 vacancies in the state.
“And there are a number of factors that contribute, but one of them obviously is the challenge of getting immigrants to fill some of the positions.”
Restaurants and hotels are reducing opening hours, closing on certain days each week and restricting their guests due to staff shortages, Minges added, which also leads to fatigue and burnout among workers who have to make up the gap.
Robert Melvin, director of government affairs for The Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, said the lack of access to foreign workers “really holds everyone back in the Commonwealth.”
For example, Kings Dominion, an amusement park in Virginia 75 miles south of Washington, DC, had to postpone the opening of its water park until mid-June, a month late, citing a labor shortage and “availability of seasonal workers.”
“Our people are being killed because of labor shortages, which is the biggest barrier to recovery in our industry right now,” said Melvin, whose group represents companies in vacation spots along the state’s coastline.
Critics of the temporary seasonal work programs say they take away American workers jobs that can undercut US wages and lead to exploitation. A bipartisan pair of senators – Dick Durbin, D-Ill. And Chuck Grassley, R-Ill. – said a work visa extension announced by President Joe Biden in April was premature.
But corporate groups representing restaurants, retailers, theme parks, and other industries that rely on summer demand have pushed Congress to offer more guest worker visas under the H-2B seasonal guest worker visa program. Employers also use H-2B visas to fill a range of temporary seasonal jobs, from seafood processing and forestry to various non-agricultural jobs like landscaping.
The National Retail Federation argues that the program’s annual cap of 66,000 Visas is “well below market demand”.
Another problem is that many US consulates around the world remain closed or have reduced their opening hours due to Covid-19 risks. Officials warn of significant visa processing delays preventing many foreign workers and students who would normally visit on a J-1 summer work visa from coming to the United States to work.
Before the coronavirus severely restricted foreign travel, more than 108,000 people took part in the summer work visa program in 2019 alone, according to the Foreign Ministry.
Consulates and embassies have been directed to process work visas as the last priority, according to the agency’s latest operational update.
According to the latest data available from the agency, nearly 85,000 petitions for fixed-term nonimmigrant workers were pending with the U.S. citizenship and immigration authorities as of late March.
“The economic impact cannot be positive,” said Richard Burke, CEO of Envoy Global, an immigration management company. “All possible industries are affected by this perfect storm of increasing demand, with limited impact [labor] Offer and uncertainty about the offer. “
Fears that foreign labor shortages could slow economic recovery have sparked renewed bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill to reform the H-2B program, despite legislature failing to enact comprehensive immigration reform bills in nearly four decades.
A bipartisan group of members of the House of Representatives tabled a bill, HR 3897 (117), in June that would exempt foreign workers who previously participated in the program from the 66,000 limit on the number of H-2B visas available annually .
“I decided to implement the H-2B visa legislation knowing it was going to be an uphill battle, but it’s something that is spread out [number of] Support groups and it’s something we need to address, “said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, a co-sponsor of the Returning Worker Exception Act of 2021.” If we don’t get these seasonal workers for many companies, they will cannot fully recover because the two things you need are capital and labor. “
Cuellar said he had reached out to Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) to try to get the Senate legislation in motion and that he was ready to move the H-2B language into legislation later that session Including government funding that lawmakers shouldn’t miss should attract enough support to pass the law on their own.
The Biden government has already tried to address the problem and announced in April that it would offer an additional 22,000 H-2B visas this year, citing “increased work requirements”. Of these, the administration provided 16,000 for returning migrant workers and 6,000 for workers from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, often referred to as the Northern Triangle.
But for employers this extension was a drop in the ocean. Less than two weeks after the visas were made available, the Department of Homeland Security announced that the agency had received enough petitions to meet the 16,000 limit for returning workers.
“While that is all well and good, it is far from being enough to meet the staffing needs of any seasonal employer,” said Jon Baselice, vice president of immigration policy for the US Chamber of Commerce. “A lot of these people are small businesses, be it amusement parks or a traveling carnival show, or fish processors, the landscapers, and many others. [they’re having the] same problems … expansion has to be more robust. “
Some in Washington are skeptical that attracting foreign workers will really help the economy, pointing to the millions of workers still unemployed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Durbin, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Grassley, his senior Republican, said Biden’s decision to increase H-2B visas came at the wrong time.
“We have long raised concerns that perverse incentives created by the H-2B program encourage lower wages and poor working conditions for American and immigrant guest workers alike,” the couple said in a statement in April. “We hope the Biden administration will work with Congress to reform this program to ensure it better serves Americans and immigrant workers.”
Business groups argue that with workers excluded from the pandemic and returning seasonal demand, there are plenty of jobs.
“The fact is, our retailers have a requirement to employ both legal immigrants and workers of all stripes,” said Ed Egee, vice president of government relations for the NRF. “And we welcome the opportunity [hire] both.”