Legal but temporary immigrant workers, sometimes called “guest workers,” have become an important component of the nation’s immigration system. A recent report found that their numbers have grown from roughly 300,000 in 1990 to more than 1.4 million in 2017, and are grouped into 36 different legal classifications — one of which is the H-2B program. The H-2B program has been a vital source of seasonal labor for the New Jersey nursery and landscape industry. The H-2B provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) provide for the admission of nonimmigrants to perform temporary non-agricultural labor or services. The program is relatively small and is capped at 66,000 visas per year, although Congress has granted authorization to the federal government to increase those numbers in times of worker shortage. In FY 2017, for example, the Trump administration raised the cap by 17,000. Just recently, the Biden administration raised it by 22,000.
The process of gaining authorization to employ a temporary worker is rather cumbersome, involving the submission of a labor certification request to the Department of Labor to ensure the lack of availability of U.S.-born workers. The certification process requires employers to pay H-2B workers the higher of the prevailing wage rate for the job in the area of employment or the federal, state, or local minimum wage. Frequently, the demand for these workers so far exceeds the number of available visas that the government has resorted to a lottery system to make final decisions, adding a further layer of uncertainty to the process. Last year, the occupations with the largest number of H-2B visas were landscaping and groundskeeping workers with approximately 74,000 approved labor certifications — around 46 percent of total approved certifications. The bulk of H-2B visas went to citizens of Mexico, followed by Jamaica as a distant second.
According to Lori Jenssen, Executive Director of the NJ Nursery and Landscape Association, locally-sourced seasonal labor is extremely hard to find. Therefore, the H-2B program fills an important labor void – one that has taken on added importance this past year, as the pandemic has driven a surge in demand for landscaping services. The Association has published a series of recommendations for reform of the program, which appear on its website. According to the National Association of Landscape Professionals, every H-2B worker supports 4.64 American jobs. In recent months,a number of policy-focused studies devoted to the H-2B program have appeared, including from the Bipartisan Policy Center, the CATO Institute, and the Economic Policy Institute. Among the reforms proposed are: simplification of the application process for employers, an increase in the number of available visas, greater protections for workers, and a pathway to permanent status for long-serving workers wishing to remain in the U.S.