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Agency Freeze on Extra Seasonal Visas Leaves Employers in Limbo

The federal government’s decision to pause tens of thousands of additional visas for non-agricultural seasonal guestworkers means businesses that rely on those workers now face coronavirus-induced labor uncertainty in what should be their peak season.

“We are still desperately in need of those supplemental visas—Covid-19 hasn’t changed our number of applicants for H-2B workers at all,” said Danielle Bane, co-owner of Quality One Inc., a landscaping business in Havre de Grace, Md. “They told us they would send us relief and then they took it back because of this crisis, and I don’t see how the two are related. Landscaping didn’t get shut down, and we make up 50-some percent of the H-2B employers.”

H-2B visas are capped at 66,000 each fiscal year and split evenly between two seasons. Demand is so high that the Department of Homeland Security has approved supplemental visas for the last several years. The agency announced April 2 that 35,000 extra visas that had been approved for the busier summer season this year would be put on hold indefinitely due to “present economic circumstances.”

Some companies, such as Bane’s, that rely on seasonal guestworkers could be hit harder by the hold-up than others, according to businesses and industry trade groups. A lack of details from the agency on whether or when the additional visas will be made available has created uncertainty for businesses in how best to navigate the coming months. The DHS said it plans to focus efforts on “measures to protect American workers now and when normal economic activity is able to resume in the future,” and had no additional comment.

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