More seasonal-worker visas are on the way – but is it too late for NC businesses?

Luis Olivera, right, and Ruben Lugo, both from Mexico, work on the grounds of the DeVintage subdivision in Cary, NC on April 19, 2017. They work for Greenscape Services, a Raleigh landscaping company, under H-2B visas.
Luis Olivera, right, and Ruben Lugo, both from Mexico, work on the grounds of the DeVintage subdivision in Cary, NC on April 19, 2017. They work for Greenscape Services, a Raleigh landscaping company, under H-2B visas.

Another wave of available seasonal worker visas could bring relief to North Carolina businesses in need of workers – but for some, it may already be too late.

The Department of Homeland Security announced a one-time increase of 15,000 H-2B visas on Monday, reserved for businesses that can prove they would suffer permanent “irreparable harm” without the additional foreign workers.

H-2B visas for seasonal non-agricultural workers are mainly used in North Carolina for the landscaping, tourism and seafood processing industries. North Carolina uses the third-most H-2B visas of any state and received 4,324 worker certifications in fiscal year 2017, according to data from the Office of Foreign Labor Certification.

Business owners across the state have expressed frustration that a provision exempting workers who’d had an H-2B visa in the past three years from the national cap wasn’t renewed for 2017. That made this year’s application process much more competitive, they said.

Businesses can apply for the additional visas beginning this week. Across the country, 66,000 H-2B visas are allotted per fiscal year: 33,000 for winter and 33,000 for summer. Business owners applying for H-2Bs are required to prove that they’ve advertised positions locally and there aren’t enough U.S. workers to fill them.

Not getting visas can severely harm businesses that struggle to find workers otherwise. Bill Grandy owns the Seaside Farm Market with his wife Julie, and the market’s remote location in the Outer Banks town of Corolla limits the local labor pool, he said.

The Grandys have relied on workers from Mexico for years, but this year they weren’t able to get the H-2B visas they needed to bring the workers into the country. Without the workers, the market couldn’t open. Bill Grandy said it’s been devastating.

“It’s financially ruined us,” he said Monday. “My wife and I put our whole life in that business, and we’re not able to run it.”

He said he doesn’t plan to apply for the additional visas because it wouldn’t be worth it at this point. The business is usually open from late May to mid-September.

“Unless there was some way to get them here in a couple days, it would be virtually impossible to get going,” he said. “It just isn’t going to happen that quickly.”

Senator Thom Tillis, R-N.C., has lobbied for H-2B expansion and said in a June statement he appreciated Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly’s willingness to address the shortage. However, he said he had “concerns about the timeline” for granting the additional visas – by late July, much of the summer business season has already passed.

The seafood and landscaping industries could still benefit from additional visas, Tillis’ office said Monday, but it would be harder for the summer tourism industry to benefit. It takes weeks for businesses’ petitions to be approved, then workers have to gain authorization from their home countries and travel to the workplace.

“I’m encouraged that Secretary Kelly intends to provide relief to seasonal small businesses across the nation currently suffering from a lack of temporary workers,” Tillis said in a statement Monday. “As President Trump has noted, the H-2B program is vital for businesses that desperately need temporary help to keep their doors open and keep their American workforce employed.”

Trump campaigned on promises to protect American jobs and has criticized other visa programs, but has remained mostly quiet on the subject of H-2B, which he has used to hire workers for his Florida resorts.

Congress authorized Homeland Security to release more visas in early May. Senior Homeland Security officials told reporters on Monday the agency made the decision after “considering the interest of U.S. workers,” according to the Washington Post. The department has also created a tip line for reports of worker exploitation and abuse, common concerns among H-2B opponents.

To apply for the additional visas, businesses must prove that they would face “permanent and severe financial loss” without additional workers, according to the rule document. They can submit evidence of this loss with their application, including financial statements showing debt or unpaid bills, the number of H-2B workers hired in past years or contracts that would be canceled without additional workers.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.