The Trump administration will release 15,000 extra visas for temporary foreign workers in the U.S. this year, granting some relief to businesses in Maine struggling to fill the ranks of seasonal workers.
The Department of Homeland Security on Friday granted a one-time increase of H-2B visas for nonagricultural workers, coinciding with the long Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start to the busy summer tourism season. The department was authorized to release more visas in a March federal spending bill.
Extra visas will help Maine hotels and restaurants that rely on foreign workers, but will barely make a dent in the state’s chronic labor shortage, according to the state’s main food and lodging trade group.
As of April, roughly 128 Maine businesses had applied to the U.S. Department of Labor to certify 2,481 foreign workers, most in the second half of the year, according to the Maine Department of Labor.
It is unclear how many visas have been allocated in Maine so far this year, but a number of hotels and restaurants that applied did not get all the workers they asked for during a late February lottery for 33,000 available visas, said Greg Dugal, director of government affairs for the Maine Innkeepers and Maine Restaurant associations.
U.S. businesses asked to certify 81,000 visa workers on the first day of applications at the beginning of the year, and that number is now more than 140,000, Dugal said.
“Obviously, it is woefully inadequate for the number of applications,” Dugal said. “How do you reconcile 15,000 visas with all the requests that were made?”
Last year, during similar hold-ups in the H-2B program, Maine businesses got a third of the workers they requested, and he expects half the workers requested in the state will make it in this year, Dugal said. Some Maine hotels and restaurants last year reported having to close rooms and reduce hours because they did not have enough workers.
“Is it good we got more? Absolutely. Is it enough? It is nowhere near enough,” Dugal said.
How the federal government plans to dole out the additional visas is unclear, especially since thousands of businesses have already been certified to get visa workers, but were turned down in the lottery, Dugal added.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement that the department decided to release more visas after determining there were not enough U.S. workers to satisfy American businesses. Seasonal industries and lawmakers have been begging the department for months to approve a visa increase.
“The limitations on H-2B visas were originally meant to protect American workers, but when we enter a situation where the program unintentionally harms American businesses it needs to be reformed,” Nielsen said.
This is the second year in a row that the Trump administration has granted additional visas after hitting the 66,000 annual visa cap. U.S. employers have a chance to apply for 33,000 visas for each half of the calendar year.
“I call on Congress to pass much needed reforms of the program and to expressly set the number of H-2B visas in statute,” Nielson said. “We are once again in a situation where Congress has passed the buck and turned a decision over to DHS that would be better situated with Congress, who knows the needs of the program.”
Businesses that use the program say temporary foreign laborers fill critical roles in seasonal industries like landscaping, hospitality and seafood processing, and support the American workforce. Critics of the program say it undermines American wages and takes jobs from U.S. workers.
In a joint statement Saturday, Maine Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent, said the long-delayed release of additional visas and the limited number available underscored the need to reform the program. The senators, along with dozens of other lawmakers, have pressured the Trump administration since March to release more visas.
“We will continue our efforts to improve the H-2B program so that Maine’s tourism industry does not continue to suffer from a lack of workers,” Collins and King said.