LANSING — By adding 30,000 seasonal worker visas, the U.S. hopes to help seasonal employers, including some farmers and processors, concerned with a shrinking domestic worker pool.
The visas will help temporarily, experts say, but won’t solve a larger problem. That being — the U.S. has more job openings than unemployed workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Just this month, the Trump administration announced plans to add 30,000 temporary foreign worker visas in the U.S. for seasonal work through September. The plan will reportedly help hotels, horticulture-related operations and food processors.
Known as H-2B, the additional seasonal visas are only for returning workers who had the visa over the last three years. The U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services is expected to accept applications soon.
Despite a proposed uptick in the allotted H-2B visas, which were capped at 66,000 per budget year, Craig Anderson said Michigan farmers and ag employers still need more labor.
“Our position is in favor of an adequate workforce for the jobs that exist out there,” said Anderson, manager of agricultural labor and safety services for the Michigan Farm Bureau. “These (H-2B visas) can take some of the pressure off agriculture in terms of filling some jobs that in many cases, those employers outside of agriculture may, in fact, recruit our U.S. agricultural workforce. …
“These seasonal jobs support those desired jobs; they support those higher paying, next-tier jobs.”
Anderson expects the increase in H-2B allotments to provide little direct relief to Michigan farmers, adding that the H-2A program is specific to agricultural production activities and certain packing/processing activities, while the H-2B program, for the most part, is a non-agricultural structure.
“The primary users for the H2-B program in ag-related activities are in the landscape side of the equation,” he said. “Food processors have the opportunity to potentially use it. One of the challenges is the split window in terms of determining when you would need that additional workforce. So, the lottery system might allow an individual operation to apply for and receive, but the challenge is that you have no guarantee of whether or not you will have workers. From a planning activity perspective, it is very, very difficult to plan that you can rely on an H-2B workforce.”
Already on the Department of Labor’s website, there are more than 2,800 H-2A Michigan agricultural job postings with pay at $13.54 an hour, which is the Adverse Effect Wage Rate for Michigan.
According to Anderson, agricultural labor occurs in nearly every county in Michigan and ranges from two-week needs to nearly year-round work activities. While peak seasonal needs tend to lie along Lake Michigan, significant local needs occur in Kalamazoo, Lake and Gratiot counties (see graph).
Migrant workers, according to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, are people who report a move of 75 miles or more to obtain a farm job during a 12-month timeframe. Oftentimes, Anderson said Florida and Texas serve as migrant worker supply states for Michigan.
Although the labor supply is limited, Anderson said it’s not a “pure wage issue.”
“Most people, when given the chance, will take full-time jobs rather than seasonal jobs even at lower wages. Yes, if we were able to pay a full year’s wages, from a median of $11 to $40 for three months work, we might be able to attract more seasonal workers,” Anderson added. “On the other hand, would you or other people be willing or able to pay for a meal at three to four times the cost?”
On a similar note, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin K. McAleenan stated that the department “continues to urge lawmakers to pursue a long-term legislative fix that both meets employers’ temporary needs while fulfilling the President’s Buy American and Hire American executive order to spur higher wages and employment rates for U.S. workers.”
“The truth is that Congress is in the best position to establish the appropriate number of H-2B visas that American businesses should be allocated without harming U.S. workers,” McAleenan said in a May 6 statement. “Therefore, Congress — not DHS — should be responsible for determining whether the annual numerical limitations for H-2B workers set by Congress need to be modified and by how much, and for setting parameters to ensure that enough workers are available to meet employers’ temporary needs throughout the year.”