The ABCs of H-2B: A Primer

Laura Kunkle October 20 2016

There has been much news recently about the inexcusable processing delays for the H-2B program (these delays are also affecting H-2A program). These critical federal programs provide employers with access to legally-authorized temporary workers. It’s no secret that the vast majority of American workers are not interested in temporary seasonal jobs, especially those that are often manually intensive. Not having the necessary labor significantly challenges our members from delivering plants to customers and meeting contract expectations. That’s why programs like H-2B for our landscape members (and H-2A for our greenhouse and nursery grower members) are essential to employers who cannot find local temporary works to fill those seasonal jobs.
AmericanHort’s amazing government relations team in Washington, DC is in front of elected leaders and policymakers every day, working to protect the interests of AmericanHort’s members’ businesses. One way we do that is through our involvement in the H-2B Workforce Coalition, a consortium of various industry associations that are working to ensure employers have access to legal short-term temporary workers during peak business periods.
The H-2B visas, according to the Coalition’s website, are temporary, nonimmigrant (emphasis theirs) classifications that allow non-citizens to come to the United States to perform temporary or seasonal work that is nonagricultural if persons capable of performing such a service or labor cannot be found in this country.

Got 2 minutes? Then watch this video that explains how the program works. Really, go watch it.

But enrolling in the H-2B program isn’t as easy as filling out a couple forms. There are many steps to follow, the process is expensive, and you’re still not guaranteed to get the labor you need. Now add the ridiculous processing delays currently being experienced, and you have employers who are left without their most valuable resource – people! No people to do the job means no plants to grow, plants to install, plants to sell. It affects EVERYONE in the industry.
You may have heard on TV, read in letters to the editor, or even heard around your holiday table how programs like H-2A and H-2B take jobs away from Americans. The Coalition’s website has a whole section devoted to debunking myths about the program. I encourage you read them so you are armed with the facts when you hear some of these myths being reported as truths. I’ll only highlight a handful here – I picked my favorites!
Do H-2B workers take jobs away from Americans?
NO! These workers actually help the economy because seasonal businesses can operate at greater capacity and contribute to their local economies. According to an American Enterprise Institute study, every H-2B worker is estimated to create and sustain 4.64 American jobs. The H-2B program requires employers to hire any able and willing American workers to fill open positions. Employers just can’t find ‘em.
Why not just pay American workers more money to do these jobs?
It’s no secret that the vast majority of American workers are not interested in temporary seasonal jobs, especially those that are often manually intensive. Employers who use the H-2B program are required to pay those workers and similarly-employed American workers a premium wage dictated by the Department of Labor, which is often well above the federal minimum wage.
Are H-2B workers eligible for any government benefits (like welfare, food stamps, etc)?
Nope. But they do help fund these programs. H-2B workers contribute to the economy by paying taxes. Like American workers, Medicare fees are withheld from their paychecks, but unlike American workers, they cannot collect these benefits.
What if an H-2B worker overstays their visa?
Workers who overstay their visas are barred from using the program in the future, a risk these workers are not willing to take since they generally return to the same employer year after year. Also, Homeland Security requires employers to promptly report any H-2B workers who do not report for work or who complete their work earlier in the season than anticipated.
Remember, the H-2B program is for nonagricultural workers. That means HUGE industries like hospitality (think hotels) and construction are seeking temporary workers too, and suffering from the same processing delays. AND…here’s the kicker: There is an annual cap of 66,000 workers admitted into the United States through the H-2B programs. All these industries are competing for those same 66,000 workers.
It’s tough out there, folks!