In 2021 as the global economy began to emerge out of lockdown, the H2B guest worker visa program supplemented its workforce with about 66,000 additional visas, which included approximately 20,000 workers from the Northern Triangle Countries (NTC) of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
While not a permanent solution and one critics claim falls far short of the actual need – upwards of 100,000 according to some estimates – the move was seen as an innovative solution to both the need for labor by U.S. employers and a way to alleviate tensions at the border, where the majority of the refugees seeking to enter the U.S. are from the NTC nations.
But the NTC addition to the system had a rocky start. As the worldwide coronavirus crisis entered a new phase, the consulates and agencies involved with the new NTC visas were simply not functioning up to the level the system demanded. Recruiting, training, processing – all aspects of the system were grossly mishandled in its inaugural year. Most telling was an absconsion rate for the NTC workers far exceeded that of the main H2B nations, Mexico and South Africa.
Like nearly every carnival company in the U.S., Reithoffer Shows relies on H-2B workers and Rick Reithoffer, owner of the company, was eager to participate with the NTC program. Not only was the process hamstrung by inefficiencies and miscommunications, causing delays on both sides of the border, but after finally hiring 36 workers from Guatemala and paying for their plane travel to Lebanon, Tennessee, in a matter of days, “They were all gone, someone picked them up in the middle of the night,” said Reithoffer, who estimates he was out in excess of $1,400 per worker. “It was not a good experience and I talked to many carnival companies who had a similar experience.”
He noted there were no absconsion on other H2B workers, who were Mexican and experienced midway laborers and while he was able to get by with his usual allotment the following year and this, “I am considering NTC workers again."
His reasons are two-fold – the NTC program has gotten better – and he has little choice – he needs workers. NTC absconsion was only difficulty of the program. Processing workers – never a speedy procedure – has been plagued by under-staffed consulates and agencies – delaying worker arrivals from all participating countries throughout 2021 and 2022. Last year, many carnival companies were unable to get their full H2B allotment and workers trickling in throughout the season was more rule than exception.
This year? The peak-fair season is here, and the outlook is cautiously optimistic. The Biden administration's short-term fix and compromise has alleviated the crisis-mode that afflicted the program during the previous administration. The border crisis may be an ongoing concern, but it is far less dire and has not regained its pre-pandemic position in the news cycle.
Loosing the excess baggage obfuscating the issue of solving the labor needs of those industries reliant on seasonal workers has made fixing some aspects of the current state of the H2B program and the new contingent of NTC workers. The absconsion rate has declined across the board and while processing delays still seem unacceptably prolonged. Workers are arriving and the consensus seems to be that carnival companies will get their foreign workers and fairs will have their 2023 midways.
“As we have fine-tuned the recruitment process with the Northern Central American countries the issue with absconding is now about on par with the workers from Mexico,” said James K. Judkins, President of the JKJ Workforce Agency, who recruits and aids in the processing of guest workers for carnival companies, concessionaires and circuses. “Due to the labor shortage, typically if a worker absconds, it is after either a local immigrant rights group or employer comes to the lot and lures them away with ‘better' job offers. We have had several return to the show to ask for their jobs back.”
He added, “I think that every mobile equipment operator who files for H2B workers will have the opportunity to hire H2B workers. Unfortunately, the incredibly long delays from the Department of Labor CNPC means that by the time the employer gets through the process, they may no longer need the workers as their temporary, seasonal need may have ended. “
“It [the Absconsion rate] is certainly better than it was in previous years,” said Greg Chieko, President, Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA). “I would not call it widespread.”
Chieko was optimistic that the carnival companies are well-staffed with their H-2B workers for the peak of the 2023 season.. “At this point (June/July) most [carnival companies], if not all, have their workers.”
“Every employer had an avenue to receive workers this year,” said Gray Delany, Executive Director, Seasonal Employment Alliance, a lobbying coalition for H2B employers. “It may not have been their returning workers but they were able to get some sort of a workforce. Thanks to the 64,716 visas released by DHS, there will be a record number of visa issuances this year. DOL's slow processing of applications was the primary reason many employers received their workers late. Over a thousand applications were not processed until after the employers' requested start date of April 1st.
Absconsion is an issue across the program affecting all industries, not just carnival companies. Exact figures may not be available, but there's reason for optimism. We are working on compiling hard and fast numbers on absconsions,” said Delany. “I can say this year has been better than last year. I would estimate the AWOL rate last year was about 20-25 percent where as it is likely around 10 percent this year. Not where we want to be, but getting better. The recruitment process has improved, which has led to the lower AWOL rate.
Frank Zaitshik of Wade Shows, one of the largest carnival companies in North America, navigated the same rocky shoals of sluggish processing, delayed workers and NTC-employees absconsion of 2021 and 2022. He was also one of the first midway providers to hire foreign workers and like carnival companies and a host of other seasonal worker employers – only an estimated 5,000 of the more than 65,000 eligible H2B workers are part of the fair & carnival industry, the remaining are recruited hospitality, forestry, landscaping and other industries – is now reliant on this labor pool. “There's no path forward for our industry without H2B workers,” said Zaitshik. “The NTC option is a great option if only to supplement our workers. It's helped and there are many opportunities to solving our labor issues.”
Some of the initial problems with NTC workers Zaitshik chalks up to miscommunications between the parties involved. “I would say our experience with workers from Mexico and South Africa have been more reliable because they fit into our type of work better than the NTC workers that were recruited. Initially, the reason NTC people were not happy was because carnival work was not something they were expecting. They were looking for different types of jobs. But the ones that stayed are key people. I think before they weren't properly prepared for the work. They were more suited for work in restaurants or places with air conditioning because that's what they were told.”
Continue reading part 2....