One-time in­crease of H-2B visas ap­proved

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Ja­son Blevins

The ski re­sort in­dus­try on Mon­day cel­e­brated Sec­re­tary of Home­land Se­cu­rity John Kelly’s ap­proval of a one­time in­crease in the num­ber of H-2B visas for sea­sonal work­ers, but the bump in tem­po­rary em­ploy­ees likely will be gone by the time ski sea­son ar­rives.

“This is an on­go­ing bat­tle. We won this bat­tle, but the on­go­ing war con­tin­ues,” said Dave Byrd, the di­rec­tor of reg­u­la­tory af­fairs for the Na­tional Ski Ar­eas As­so­ci­a­tion, which sent a let­ter this spring to Kelly urg­ing him to grow the num­ber of al­lowed tem­po­rary worker visas. “We are go­ing to con­tinue to hit up Congress for more ac­cess to for­eign work­ers be­cause Amer­i­cans want year-round jobs that come with ben­e­fits and we have a lot of sea­sonal busi­ness and need more ac­cess to la­bor.”

As un­em­ploy­ment lev­els across the coun­try plum­met, the re­sort in­dus­try joins amuse­ment park and golf course op­er­a­tors, land­scap­ing and forestry com­pa­nies and fish­eries among sea­sonal busi­nesses call­ing for Congress to in­crease the num­ber of an­nual H-2B visas be­yond the cap of 66,000. Kelly, who

had re­ceived dis­cre­tionary author­ity from Congress to tem­po­rar­ily in­crease the num­ber of worker visas for non­farm work­ers, an­nounced Mon­day he was adding 15,000 H-2B visas for fis­cal 2017.

The in­crease rep­re­sents a 45 per­cent bump from the num­ber of H-2B visas nor­mally is­sued for the sec­ond half of the fis­cal year, said se­nior Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials in a call with re­porters.

Busi­nesses can be­gin ap­ply­ing for the visas this week, but must first at­test that their firms would suf­fer per­ma­nent “ir­repara­ble harm” without im­port­ing for­eign work­ers. They will be re­quired to re­tain doc­u­ments prov­ing that they would not oth­er­wise be able to meet their con­trac­tual obli­ga­tions, or pro­vide other ev­i­dence of se­vere fi­nan­cial loss, the of­fi­cials said.

But Byrd said the visas will likely be gone by Oc­to­ber, the start of fis­cal 2018 and the time when ski re­sort op­er­a­tors are ramp­ing up for win­ter. He’s not sure if any re­sort op­er­a­tors will take ad­van­tage of the pro­gram. H-2B visas have fallen out of fa­vor among re­sort op­er­a­tors in re­cent years as in­creased reg­u­la­tion and rules make the pro­gram less ap­peal­ing. The Na­tional Ski Ar­eas As­so­ci­a­tion is lob­by­ing Congress to not just in­crease the num­ber of al­lowed visas, but ease those reg­u­la­tions, specif­i­cally the re­quire­ment that em­ploy­ers pay travel ex­penses for for­eign work­ers and de­liver at least 35 hours a week of work to H-2B visa em­ploy­ees.

For a re­sort op­er­a­tor hir­ing, say, Ja­maican lift op­er­a­tors, the travel ex­penses can pile up. And in a slow win­ter, where snow might not be pil­ing up, it can be a chal­lenge to keep work­ers on the pay­roll for 35 hours a week.

“Part of our broader goal is to get these reg­u­la­tions re­laxed,” Byrd said. “The in­crease has made it slightly eas­ier for us go­ing for­ward but the num­ber of oner­ous reg­u­la­tions makes the H-2B pro­gram ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for small busi­nesses to use.”

Even with the has­sles, re­sort op­er­a­tors are look­ing anew at H-2B visas. With Colorado’s 31 ski ar­eas host­ing al­most 13 mil­lion an­nual vis­its, re­sort op­er­a­tors in Pitkin, Sum­mit, Ea­gle and Grand coun­ties are scram­bling for work­ers as un­em­ploy­ment rates reach his­toric lows.

The H-2B visa pro­gram is a po­lit­i­cal hot but­ton that both Democrats and Repub­li­cans have blasted, ar­gu­ing the pro­gram takes jobs away from Amer­i­cans. Op­po­nents ar­gue that an in­crease in H-2B visas could make em­ploy­ers less in­clined to in­crease pay to lure un­em­ployed Amer­i­cans into lower-skilled jobs.

“This is yet an­other ex­am­ple of the ad­min­is­tra­tion and Congress fail­ing to keep the Trump cam­paign prom­ise of putting Amer­i­can work­ers first,” read a Mon­day state­ment from Roy Beck, the founder and pres­i­dent of Num­bers USA, which lob­bies for lower im­mi­gra­tion lev­els in the coun­try.

Trump him­self has used H-2B visas to hire tem­po­rary work­ers at his golf re­sorts in Palm Beach, Fla., and Jupiter, Fla.

“I’ve hired in Florida dur­ing the prime sea­son — you could not get help,” Trump said dur­ing a 2015 pri­mary de­bate. “Ev­ery­body agrees with me on that. They were part-time jobs. You needed them, or we just might as well close the doors, be­cause you couldn’t get help in those hot, hot sec­tions of Florida.”

The Wash­ing­ton Post contributed to this re­port.

Elise Amen­dola, AP

Stephen Faulkner, left, owner of Faulkner’s Land­scap­ing & Nurs­ery, works on a project with Gon­salo Gar­cia and Jalen Murchi­son in Manch­ester, N.H. Busi­ness own­ers say they’re strug­gling to find sea­sonal help.

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