H-2B visa program resumes processing
Three Maine forestry contractors and 342 positions affected
On March 17, the Department of Homeland Security announced it will immediately resume processing H-2B visas through April 15. Two federal agencies that help administer one of the largest sources of seasonal workers in the United States had stopped processing applications after a Florida court ruling, essentially shutting the program down.
Many in the forest products industry – as well as other industries like hospitality and food production – rely on the H-2B program to find employees they say they can’t find domestically.Although this announcement provides a means to get the visas moving forward, it is a serious concern that DHS denied the continuation of “premium processing,” which is an important feature of the visa process. Without the premium processing, the wait time for a visa is unknown and could actually take months. This time lag will continue to hamstring H-2B-dependent sectors, including those reforestation contractors still awaiting the workers they need for the tail-end of their season. DHS still intends to develop and release a new Interim Final Rule by April 30.
Currently three Maine forestry contractors have filed job orders intended for H-2B foreign labor certification seeking a total of 342 positions, according to Jorge Acero, who monitors the program for the Maine Department of Labor’s Bureau of Employment Services.
Many in the forest products industry – as well as other industries like hospitality and food production – rely on the H-2B program to find employees they say they can’t find domestically. Currently three Maine forestry contractors have filed job orders intended for H-2B foreign labor certification seeking a total of 342 positions, according to Jorge Acero, who monitors the program for the Maine Department of Labor’s Bureau of Employment Services.
- Horizon Forestry – 120 openings
- Northwoods Forestry – 157 openings
- Felix Palencia – 65 openings
After a challenge from Florida Rural Legal Services, a non-profit labor rights group, the Northern Florida District Court ruled on March 4 that the U.S. Department of Labor does not have the authority to issue regulations in the H-2B program, including standards for calculating prevailing wages for seasonal workers.
The U.S. Department of Labor then announced that it would immediately stop processing requests for prevailing wage determinations and applications, and would also not accept any new requests or applications. See DOL Office of Foreign Labor Certification for more details. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) followed suit on March 5. Read press release.
“H2-B workers are guest workers – often used in pre-commercial thinning and planting. This is not an issue related to bonded labor,” Eric Kingsley, Northeast coordinator of Forest Resources Association (FRA) wrote in an earlier this month email. “If you expect that a loss of H2-B workers this year will impact your operations – or have concerns regarding how this might impact the supply chain – please get me information I can share with Maine officials (and others).”
FRA has been leading advocacy efforts on behalf of the forestry sector to persuade DOL to change course. Numerous members of Congress from both parties and in both chambers have already communicated their opposition to DOL’s guestworker visa stoppage. Group letters are now circulating in both chambers urging the Department to change course and to support the Department of Homeland Security, which actually has the authority to regulate the H-2B program.
“Guestworkers from Central America and Mexico are absolutely critical to the practice of sustainable forestry in this country,” Deb Hawkinson, FRA president, said in an email. “Because the work is seasonal and tree-planting crews move throughout wide regions, U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents are just not interested in this work. Legal, fully vetted guestworkers have performed it for many decades, under authorization of the H-2B visa program.”
“It is very important to continue to raise the visibility of the H-2B crisis, as DHS moves toward issuing the Interim Final Rule governing the H-2B program which it says it requires to continue with the visa program. If you have not yet sent a message to your House member and two Senators requesting them to contact DHS and DOL with your concerns, it is not too late to do so, by means of FRA’s “write your legislators” template: http://www.forestresources.org/issue_alert.asp?g=FRA_ACTION&issue=guestworker_certifications&parent=FRA_ACTION”
“We have come far in the past two weeks,” Hawkinson said. “But much remains to be done to restore a workable H-2B Guestworker program, including further action calls in the coming days.”