The already limited supply of H-2 Visas may have a significant impact on the seafood industry in the coming year. While the shortage of visas has been a recurring problem, the 2018 season was one of the hardest on processors.
H-2B Visa Application Process
The H-2B visa is a nonimmigrant work visa that allows employers in non-agricultural industries to fill seasonal positions. To participate in this program, employers must partake in a complicated, multi-step process that must be completed in a timely and efficient manner. Employers must show that they have made a concentrated effort to hire American workers. In most cases, employers have a difficult time due to the seasonal and intense nature of their work.
Visa Shortage Impact
In 2018, about 81,000 H-2B applications were submitted for the second half of the fiscal year. However, only 33,000 visas were made available for employers from April through September. U.S. Customs and Immigration Services also received applications to bring about 47,000 workers to the United States for that timespan in the latter part of the two-step application process. This high number of requests prompted a lottery approach to determine how the visas were distributed.
Since the 1980s, crab houses in Maryland have had to hire temporary foreign workers, mostly from Mexico, to extract meat from the crabs’ hard shells. Maryland has 20 licensed crab businesses, employing 500 foreign workers. In 2018, only about 200 of the requested 500 foreign worker spots were filled, leaving some businesses without any foreign workers. If this trend continues, many of the smaller processing plants will be forced to shut their doors.
In Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the salmon processing season was also affected. Finding workers willing to work long, grueling hours in an isolated part of the state is difficult, and requires companies to recruit year round. But, the processors are only able to fill about 65-70% of their workforce with domestic workers. For the remaining workforce, they must turn to the H-2B program.
The salmon industry is hit particularly hard by the visa limit. Year-round processors and other industries can apply on January 1, while salmon processors can only apply three months before the start of their season.
In Texas, the shrimp industry is also feeling the impact of the visa shortage. In 2018, an estimated 70% of the trawlers that belong to the Texas Shrimp Association—about 140 in total—went out understaffed. This usually meant having to go without headers, the crew members tasked with removing the shrimp heads before they are frozen at sea. This can greatly impact the revenue that shrimpers bring in, as headless shrimp bring $1 to $1.50 more per pound at the dock compared to shrimp with heads. It is estimated that missing only 750 H-2B workers will cause the shrimp industry to lose out on $1 million per day during the season.
Congress has granted Homeland Security the permission to double the amount of visas granted in both 2017 and 2018, but the agency has only added 15,000 each time. Currently, there is no solution in sight to the shortage.
In December 2018, the US Senate passed a stop-gap bill to keep the government funded, instead of the proposed funding bill that was on the table. With the passing of this bill, the H-2 visa community lost the permanent solution to the visa shortage, as it was included with the funding bill that was lost.