Keating looks to exempt returning H-2B workers

Keating looks to exempt returning H-2B workers

Posted Mar 21, 2017 at 9:06 PMUpdated at 6:21 AM
By K.C. Myers

U.S. Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., introduced a bill Monday that would exempt returning H-2B employees from the 33,000 national cap on visas for seasonal foreign workers, many of whom wash dishes, clean hotel rooms and landscape on Cape Cod and the Islands.

This is the time of year when seasonal business owners begin to panic about securing their foreign workforce. The H-2B program allows up to 66,000 employees to come to the U.S., divided into 33,000 each for the winter and summer seasons. For years, Cape businesses have relied on H-2B workers, although getting them here has become a bureaucratic nightmare, according to employers. Many businesses, such as the Lobster Pot Restaurant in Provincetown, have had to open late due to delays in processing H-2B visas.

"That hurts local jobs," Keating said. "(U.S. employees) are waiting for that business to open." 

Last year, Congress passed a temporary returning worker exemption so foreign employees who have worked in the U.S. in previous years could come without being counted toward the cap. Congress did not renew that exemption this year. So, Keating has filed a bill, along with Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich., that specifies workers who received an H-2B visa in 2014, 2015 or 2016 should be exempt from the cap.

"The anxiety the small businesses go through every year would be alleviated," Keating said.

The cap for this year was reached on March 13, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

It's unknown how many of the 301 requests for more than 3,000 foreign workers made by businesses from Barnstable, Dukes and Nantucket counties were granted before the cap was reached. 

Keating said his bill will not help businesses for the summer of 2017 but there is a chance Congress will pass another exemption as part of a temporary budget in the next few weeks. The same Congress declined to pass the exemption a few months ago, however, "so I'm not holding out too much hope," he said. 

Some people think H-2B workers take jobs from U.S. citizens but Cape Cod, a geographically isolated area with high housing costs and a booming seasonal economy, doesn't have enough people living here to fill all the temporary jobs, Keating said.

Businesses "would love to hire locally, but they cannot find the people," he said.

Jim Farley, owner of Far Land Provisions in Provincetown, had to open his seasonal restaurant, Far Land on the Beach, late last summer due to a delay in processing visas for his employees from Kosovo and Jamaica. This year, he's still unsure if three returning H-2B workers from these countries will be able to make it Cape Cod.

His year-round staff of 18 swells to 48 in the summer, Farley said.

To get them to the Cape this summer, Farley is relying on another action by Keating. Last week, Keating and 37 other congressmen signed a letter asking John Kelly, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to audit the H-2B visas issued in the first half of fiscal year 2017 to see if there are any remaining from the 33,000 cap that could be applied to this second half of 2017. 

Returning workers "have institutional memory," Farley said.

"There aren't enough people to fill the jobs that are available in town," he said.