H-2B Visas and Labor Shortages

Daniel Costa, Economic Policy Institute, July 17, 2017

Conclusion: Scant evidence of labor shortages does not justify increasing the number of H-2B visas

The fact that, from 2004 to 2016, wages were stagnant or declined in nine of the top 10 H-2B occupations and only increased significantly in one of those occupations, combined with persistently high unemployment rates over the same period, makes it highly unlikely that labor shortages exist at the national level in the top H-2B occupations. Even considering the uptick in wage growth since 2014, the available evidence suggests that the labor market for H-2B occupations still has a lot of slack, which points to the high likelihood that there are many United States workers who are willing, qualified, and able to perform H-2B jobs. This does not mean that no labor shortages exist anywhere in the United States in these occupations—it is entirely possible that shortages may exist in some states or localities—but the relatively high national unemployment rates in H-2B occupations during the 2004–2016 period suggest that even the employers experiencing a local labor shortage might find available U.S. workers if they recruited outside their city, region, or state, and if they offered more attractive wages and benefits (including offering transportation and housing to workers from outside the local area). Given these realities, DHS’s fiscal 2017 expansion—by 15,000 visas—of a program as flawed as the H-2B program is ill-advised. In addition, the H-2B program still has a legal framework that allows employers to underpay and exploit migrant workers and to overlook unemployed U.S. workers seeking jobs in H-2B occupations. DHS and DOL should be focusing their resources and staff time on program oversight, on rooting out bad-actor employers who violate H-2B rules, and on protecting the migrant workers who come to the United States in search of better opportunities through the H-2B program—not on processing more visas for H-2B employers.

[Editor’s Note: For the full study, click “Original Article” below.]

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