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Part 2: Northern Triangle Workers Finally Ensure Short-Term Viability of H-2B Program for Amusement Industry
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The following story is the continuation of a story originally published on July 14, 2023 titled  Absconsion Rate Down, Recruitment Improves: Northern Triangle Workers Finally Ensure Short-Term Viability of H-2B Program for Carnival and Fair Industry (Part 1).

In 2021 as the global economy began to emerge out of lockdown, the H-2B 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.

Portability & Worker's Yelp

Even though the Wade Shows core H-2B group,  many with them for more than a decade, are from the traditional H-2B nations of Mexico and South Africa,  among the current workers are people from the Northern Triangle country of Honduras, and in what has become a familiar scenario, these workers who find a fit make the best recruiters for other reliable employees.  This is the same as H-2B workers from other nations, who become ambassadors for guest worker program in general, and a resource for visas employees for individual companies because they recommend suitable applicants from their hometowns.

In fact, what has been happening at the employee/employer level is that the employers are upping their game – competitive pay, improved conditions, more cultural sensitivity – which is not exactly surprising. A tight labor market always results in increases in worker benefits and related issues as a means to entice workers to stay and be productive employees. But, the Biden Administration not only added additional visas, but according to the Federal Register, mandated: “Program and Portability Flexibility for H-2B Workers Seeking To Change Employers.”

According to Michael Wood, Wood Entertainment Company, the workers are well informed of the new this new ability and through smartphones and social media, have created their own networks and are freely sharing opinions and quasi-ratings of employers. “The net effect has forced employers take better care of their staff,” said Wood. “The biggest complaints are about living conditions, that they have clean places to live, sleep and clean up. If it's a struggle to take care of everyday life, the workers are increasingly aware of those things.”

He added, “you no longer can just park a bunkhouse like we did 30 years ago. The living quarters were a lower priority than they are now. The workers have increased expectations, but for now, there are no codified standard for portable housing.”
Employers have been heavily investing in upgraded living quarters, such as units from Lifetime Products pictured above.

Wood pointed that the recruitment process may be a lot of hurry up and wait, in the NTC countries the “ministries of labor have rolled recruiting and training programs all into one. There have been training programs in hospitality, agriculture and other fields, but there hasn't been carnival training yet and we need that. I am optimistic that it will get better.”

Poltical World

In terms of H-2B workers for the remainder of 2023, carnival companies have less stressful labor issues. “By the end of the fiscal year, about 10,000 H-2B workers will have been processed for the Mobile Entertainment Business, with about 25 percent coming from Northern Central America,” said Judkins.

The NTC workers may not be the panacea carnival companies hope for, but it has proven to be not just an effective stopgap measure, but one with rare bipartisan support, boding well for the future legislative progress. “My own personal opinion is that the Northern Central American Strategy has made the release of supplemental visas more palatable to both the D's and the R's, and opened the door for 45,000 additional Returning Worker Visas in addition to the 20,000 Northern Central American Visas,” said Judkins. “The supplemental visa option in the appropriations bill, subject to the whims of the current administration, is working well because it is politically in the best interests of the White House to offer as many legal options as possible to stem some of the irregular immigration. This option should remain in the Continuing Resolution that will inevitably be passed at the end of September, and depending upon timing, we expect the supplemental visas to be released to be similar to the release in FY2023. The timing of the release may affect which employers benefit the most.”

The OABA is seeking longer term solutions specific to midway providers. “ The Returning worker exemption in the short term,” said Chieko. “ Our own P visa category is the long term. We have a unique and consistent need and it needs to be addressed in the legislature.”

Judkins concurs, adding “if any of this were passed, it would not provide any relief for our employers until the fiscal year 2025.”

Pro-Union Resistance

Anti-immigration rhetoric may have cooled regarding the ongoing border crisis, but as H-2B lobbyists disentangle their objectives from that debate, pro-union politicians are throwing up new hurdles in the emerging debate. “SEA is focused on getting the deal we cut with the Labor unions introduced as a bill and then signed into law,” said Delaney. “The deal transfers the carnival occupation into the uncapped P-5 program. The House Appropriations Committee passed the FY24 DHS Appropriations Bill a couple weeks ago. The bill includes a one year Returning Worker Exemption. While this is a victory and does represent progress, there is no path forward for a clean Returning Worker Exemption in the Senate. Labor is not supportive of a RWE. It will run into opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate.”

He added, “We have established a very close relationship with the White House and DHS due to the time and resources we have put into helping establish the H-2B program infrastructure in the NTC. We were pleased they listened to us and released the visas earlier than ever this year. This enabled employers and agents to better plan for their 2023 season. In 2024, we anticipate another significant visa release. This will help us buy some time while we work on getting the Graham/Padilla H-2B reform deal introduced and signed into law.”

The fact of the matter is, the H-2B system hasn't been this effective in years. Carnival company representatives noted that the progress would not have been possible without  industry-wide support between fair boards and midway providers. “ We have had great support from the IAFE,” said Chieko. “They sent three representatives to our DC fly-in. Legislators can relate to the impact on the county and state fairs. They see things in a new light. They are working with us on our priorities.”

Judkins: The support of the IAFE was incredibly helpful due to their ties to their local communities, ties that a mobile carnival will never have. The local fair boards are incredibly powerful in getting the doors open to members of Congress' offices so that the lobbyists and the OABA can educate the Members of Congress about issues that need to be addressed.”
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