Virginia businesses that rely on foreign workers wrestle with uncertainty over federal cap

By: - July 26, 2018 6:20 am

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Graham and Rollins in Hampton is one of the state’s oldest remaining crab houses, but its owner, Johnny Graham, says finding workers to do the tough, seasonal job of actually picking the sweet meat out of the sharp, crusty shells has gotten harder and harder.

“You can imagine what a nasty, monotonous, crab-smelling job this looks like to a high school kid,” he says.

And so for years, he’s relied on foreign, seasonal laborers from Mexico, which he hires legally through the federal H2B visa program.

But growing demand for seasonal workers as the economy has improved, combined with a decision by Congress last year to tighten the H2B program, left thousands of employers around the country competing for a maximum of 66,000 guest workers. That turned what had been a reliable source of labor into an annual lottery where the winners get the employees and the losers, well, don’t.

Graham said he was lucky this year and got visas for the 50 workers he needed this season. Others weren’t. Maryland crab houses were particularly hard hit, and some shut down. Graham says he can’t operate a $10 million-a-year business with that kind of uncertainty hanging over his head.

“One year I don’t get my people, I’m going to go out of business,” he said. “There’s just no alternative.”

Virginia businesses applied for permission to bring in over 4,000 foreign workers to fill seasonal jobs under the H2B program last year. Most — about half — were hired by landscaping companies. The seafood industry hired another 600. The rest went to companies seeking carnival attendants, housekeepers, ice cream truck drivers, lifeguards and other low-skill seasonal jobs that employers have said they can no longer find U.S. workers to fill. Foreign agricultural workers are brought in under another visa program, the H2A, which the Trump administration has vowed to streamline and improve.

Exact statistics about demand this year aren’t yet available, but Gray Delany, the head of the Seasonal Employment Alliance, an industry group advocating on behalf of the program, estimated demand for workers outstripped supply by three to one.

This isn’t the first time the program has run up against its cap — the last time was in 2008 just before the Great Recession. As the economy has improved since, demand for seasonal workers has steadily increased, he said. At the same time, the domestic supply has shrunk amid the improving job market.

Employers said the situation got worse last year, when Congress declined to renew a measure that had exempted workers who had previously received visas under the program from the cap. The decision came amid growing debate and polarization over immigration.

“The president supports the program but Congress has been unwilling to tackle this,” he said. “It’s slowly gotten worse, then we got thrown into the immigration debate even though it’s a nonimmigrant program.”

Indeed, several of President Donald Trump’s businesses rely on the program, including the resort known as the “Winter White House,” Mar-a-Lago.

Delany argues the program shouldn’t get dragged into the immigration debate. The way it’s set up, employers must first advertise jobs locally and prove they couldn’t be filled. All the applications are vetted by the U.S. Department of Labor before they are filled. The guest workers who are hired stay in the U.S. for a maximum of eight to nine months before returning home.

He said if anything, the shortage of visas is increasing demand for undocumented workers.

“It’s so upside down,” he said.

It’s not just businesses that like the program. The seasonal workers say the ability to come work part of the year in the United States has changed their lives. And the wages they’re paid while they’re here are generally well above minimum wage: an average of about $15 an hour in Virginia last year, according to labor department data.

José Chicas has been driving an ice cream truck in the Richmond area since 2011. He says he makes about $3,000 a month, compared to about $200 a month he made working in a garment factory near his home in El Salvador.

“We are out of debt and we just have more opportunity for a better life,” he said.

So far, a political fix has been elusive.

U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine were among 18 lawmakers who wrote a letter to Senate leaders encouraging them to include language lifting the cap in the March omnibus spending bill. (The campaign for Corey Stewart, Kaine’s opponent in the coming election, did not respond to a question about his position on the issue Wednesday.)

The requested language was included and in May, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would release 15,000 more visas for the second year in a row and threw the issue back to Congress.

Kaine said in a statement he was disappointed the Trump administration didn’t go further and promised to continue to work on the issue. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has blamed the problem on Congress.

“We are once again in a situation where Congress has passed the buck and turned a decision over to DHS that would be better situated with Congress, who knows the needs of the program,” wrote Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen in a May statement. “As Secretary, I remain committed to protecting U.S. workers and strengthening the integrity of our lawful immigration system and look forward to working with Congress to do so.”

Advocates for the program are now focused on lobbying Congress for a permanent fix, describing the 15,000 additional workers made available by DHS as “too little too late.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.