H-2B visa quota has been filled

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Restaurants, such as Upstairs at Nancy's might find it challenging to find staff this summer. — File photo by Susan Safford

The cap of 33,000 H-2B visas for the first half of the 2017 fiscal year was reached on Thursday, March 16, according to a press release from Congressman Bill Keating’s office. In response, Rep. Keating, joined by Representative Andy Harris of Maryland and 36 of their colleagues, sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly urging the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to conduct an audit to determine the number of unused H-2B visas.

“The cap on H-2B visas was met yesterday, which makes our call for DHS to conduct an audit for any unused visas all the more critical,” the pair said in their letter. “Our communities thrive when our small and seasonal businesses have the employees they need to thrive … If there are unused visas, it is imperative that they are made available to employers as soon as possible, given the time-sensitive nature of when employers must be able to fully staff their businesses in order to remain competitive and viable.”

An H-2B visa is a temporary work visa, usually good for one year, for foreign workers with a job offer for seasonal nonagricultural work in the U.S. Congress has set the H-2B cap at 66,000 per fiscal year, with 33,000 for workers who begin employment in the first half of the fiscal year (Oct. 1 to March 31) and 33,000 for workers who begin employment in the second half of the fiscal year (April 1 to Sept. 30). Any unused numbers from the first half of the fiscal year will be available for employers seeking to hire H-2B workers during the second half of the fiscal year.

Until this year, returning workers on H-2B visas were not counted against the national quota. This year, the returning-worker provision is gone, the result of a vote along partisan lines in Congress. According to the Department of Labor, there were 84,627 H-2B visas issued in 2016. Without the returning-worker exemption, almost 19,000 jobs would have gone unfilled in seasonal U.S. businesses. Employers can only hire H-2B workers 90 days before their start date, so the supply of workers can be significantly diminished when Cape and Island businesses start hiring for May.