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Unexplained Processing Glitches Delaying Majority of Northern Triangle Seasonal H-2B Workers
Delay leaves many Carnivals & Concessionaires without staff for peak season
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Everyone knew higher food and gas prices, soaring trucking costs and a turbulent political landscape was coming this summer, but at least midway staffing issues would be eased.After long drawn out discussions and other delays in updating H-2B Worker Visa program, the final version allowed for 66,000 workers in 2022, a short-term fix still expected to alleviate the worker shortages that plagued the fair industry and other employers in 2021.

But reported processing issues at the consulate level have continue to clog the system, stemming the flow of workers to the U.S. and causing economic hardship and business disruptions. Thousands of workers scheduled to begin  by June are still waiting for the paperwork to be processed. For the employers of seasonal help and foreign guest workers in dire need of a full staff – and operating in an era of low unemployment and the strongest labor market in decades – the lack of even a few extra employees can have a dire impact on already over-worked staff. 

Scope of Problem

‚ÄčEven more vexing is that the snarl is occurring in one of the newest changes to the system – El Salvador and Guatemala, the Triangle Countries. Studies indicate that an increase in guest workers can alleviate instances of illegal immigration as well as provide some relief from the current border crisis, where an estimated 170,000 immigrants are currently requesting asylum in the U.S. The majority of those currently amassing at the border originate from the Northern Triangle nations.

By having the opportunity to show that the H-2B system could, if not be a complete panacea, will ease some of the tension over this new chapter in the ongoing border crisis. Some of the problems are admittedly due to birth and growing pains. Workers have been recruited and screened, matched up with an employer and then have their VISA processed by the U.S. consulates and foreign ministries.. Understandably, implementing a new program is always troublesome and both recruitment and processing had rocky starts, compounded by the pandemic crisis.

But with travel restrictions lifted and a successful vaccine rollout, the Triangle Countries seemed poised to take their place among the family H-2B nations. Apparently, it's the consulates and ministries gumming up the works and keeping employers critically understaffed.

“We have brought the passports to the consulates, but no one has given them the memo that this is important,” 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.

Judkins has set up recruitment offices in the capital cities of the Triangle Companies conducting the same work he's been doing for years in Mexico. “I don't know what the holdup is, nobody is talking to us as to why there's a delay.” 

“There is a lot of finger pointing between the ministries and the consulates. We think that most of the problem is on the ministry side and not on the consulates,” said Gray Delany, Executive Director, Seasonal Employment Alliance (SEA), a lobbying coalition. “The consulates are processing as fast they can but errors on the DS-160s is preventing the consulates from adjudicating the applications more quickly.

What is the scope of the problem? It's more of a fly in the ointment than total calamity, but that's easy to say when you're not the employer in need of labor. Basically, the worker allotment of 33,000 is the statutory cap of who can come from any eligible country in the world. DHS (Department of Homeland Security released an additional 35,000 visas on March 31st for those with an April 1st date of need or later. Of these 35,000, 11,500 were allocated to the Northern Triangle countries.

“At a time of record job growth, additional H-2B visas will help to fuel our Nation's historic economic recovery,” said Alejandro N. Mayorkas, Secretary of Homeland Security, when the additional visas were first released in 2021.  “DHS is taking action to protect American businesses and create opportunities that will expand lawful pathways to the United States for workers from the Northern Triangle countries.” 

Fraction Arrives

As of early July, scarcely 15 percent of workers from the Northern Triangle Countries – all scheduled for the April 1st start – have arrived. With the paperwork stalled and both workers and employers in limbo, no one is sure when the rest of these much needed workers will arrive. Time is the only certainty, and seasonal workers are of little use once a season ends. They are still on their way but if they don't get here soon, they will not be much use,” said Delany. “The delay is causing irreparable harm to the small and seasonal employers who are facing unprecedented workforce shortages due to the labor crisis. The delay is forcing landscapers to default on contracts, carnivals to cancel events, and hotels to reduce room inventory.”

According to a recent report from the American Hotel and Lodging Association (ALHA) — which represents 80 percent of all franchised hotels— 97 percent of its members reported a staffing shortage in June.  

Delany estimates that nearly “90 percent of carnival companies have not received their (Northern Triangle Country) H-2B workers.

Workers continue to trickle, but in such dire times, even if seasonal laborers come in post-seasonm-peak, they're still much welcomed. “ Carnivals do have more of a need for their workers in the summer than landscapers so most carnivals will still take their workers now even though they are months late. “Most employers used to be able to find more American workers, especially high schoolers between the months of June and August, but now it is almost impossible to find local workers.”

Some employers have given up Northern Triangle workers this year and decided to cut their losses and hope the system is working by 2023. “Some employers are choosing to cancel their NT petitions and instead file an October 1st application,” said Delany.

This current delay in processing is particularly frustrating to SEA and the industries reliant on seasonal workers. Support and opposition to the H-2B program seems to cross party lines, but the Northern Triangle Country initiative seem a salve for both industries dependent on guest workers and the  web of immigration issue and heated rhetoric often entangled in the foreign worker debate. With such systemic ineptitude and inefficiency apparent in the processing system of the Northern Triangle Countries, expectations for the system have been lowered.

“The H-2B program expansion is part of the solution to the Biden administration goals of reducing irregular migration, poverty and providing direct economic assistance to the Northern Triangle countries,” said Delany. “At SEA, we have devoted substantial resources to the policy objective of increasing H-2B program participation in the Northern Triangle countries. With little time for training, employers will be less likely to commit to new workers from countries with lower historical H-2B participation rates”
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