H-2B cap reached in record time as Congress considers legislation to address visa needs

Legislation to improve the H-2 guest worker programs was introduced in the House; the H-2B first half cap was met in record time.

The House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., drafted bipartisan legislation to revise seasonal work visa programs in an effort to address labor shortages across various industries. 

The draft bill, H-2 Improvements to Relieve Employers Act, H.R.4708, is led by Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, with 15 bipartisan cosponsors.  

According to Gonzales’s office, the HIRE Act strengthens temporary work visa programs including the H-2B and H-2A programs and addresses the national workforce shortage. 

“I represent 119 cities in Texas. From urban cores to rural communities, one thing unites them all: a desperate need for labor,” says Gonzales. “Unfortunately, solutions such as temporary work visa programs are riddled with red tape, making it difficult for employers to fully staff up. This is especially true for small businesses, farmers, ranchers, and so many others on Main Street that are struggling to get by. In order for our economy to reach its full potential, we need to strengthen and streamline work visa options, which is precisely what the HIRE Act seeks to do,” says Gonzales. 

The bill received praise from industry groups including the Irrigation Association and the National Association of Landscape Professionals 

“The irrigation industry depends on workable and dependable guest worker program for its own labor needs, as well as for the vitality of the broader agriculture and landscape sectors,” says Nathan Bowen, IA advocacy and public affairs vice president. “This legislation would make critically important improvements to the H2-A and H2-B guest worker programs that irrigation businesses depend upon to thrive.” 

In a statement, NALP called the current state of the program “broken” and commended Gonzales and the bipartisan coalition of co-sponsors for the HIRE Act. “The H-2B guest worker program is currently broken and the HIRE Act takes some significant steps toward reducing redundancy in the process and saving time for the seasonal businesses that rely on foreign guest workers in a historically tight labor market,” according to the statement. 

The American Farm Bureau Federation released a statement praising the legislation for streamlining the H-2A and H-2B programs to make hiring qualified workers easier. 

“Labor is one of the biggest limiting factors in American agriculture, and true reform to guest worker programs is needed more than ever,” wrote the Farm Bureau. “We appreciate Representative Gonzales for introducing the HIRE Act, which will help streamline H-2A and H-2B to make hiring qualified workers easier and enable farmers to continue stocking the pantries of America’s families.” 

The legislation was introduced against the backdrop of the H-2B program breaking a record for applications received. 

The Department of Labor received over 33,000 applications during the initial three-day filing window for the semi-annual visa allotment cap of 33,000 in late June.  

This is the first time this has occurred in the first half of the year and the earliest it has ever happened, according to the H-2B workforce coalition. 

“The overwhelming demand for H-2B worker visas—the earliest the first-half cap has ever been met—is further proof that this highly successful program should expand to meet workforce demand,” Emerson Barnes, U.S. Travel Association executive vice president of public affairs and policy wrote in a statement after the cap was met. “With nearly 10 million job openings across the U.S. economy, and 1.4 million in the leisure and hospitality sector alone, there are simply not enough American workers to meet hiring needs. The federal government can address these critical workforce shortage — and spur the U.S. economy — by increasing the cap on H-2B temporary worker visas.” 

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