The national unemployment rate is at the lowest levels since 1969. In South Dakota, we have an unemployment rate of 2.9 percent, which is one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation. This is certainly something to be celebrated, but it also means our industries that rely on seasonal and temporary work have to seek outside workers when necessary. This is especially true for the tourism and construction industries, which will be seeking extra help from the springtime to early fall.
One important tool available to them is the H-2B visa program, which has not adequately provided the necessary workers and certainty to our employers in recent years. The H-2B visa program allows employers to hire foreign workers for short-term jobs for specific periods of time before the workers then return back to their home country. I have been working in the Senate to provide a long-term fix to the H-2B visa program, including increasing the number of H-2B visas available each year to meet our growing workforce needs. In the March 2018 funding bill, we included a path forward for the administration to increase visas by 69,000 for 2018. The administration ultimately decided to allow an additional 15,000 H-2B visa workers for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2018. While we welcomed the increase, it was too little, too late for our state’s businesses who need workers for the busy summer tourism and construction seasons. A long-term solution is necessary.
A criticism we sometimes hear about the H-2B program is that the workers are not thoroughly vetted and overstay their visas. This is not the case. While there is certainly room for improvement in our immigration system, the H-2B visa program is one of the most effective programs available. The migrant workers are among the least likely to overstay their visas each year. We also sometimes hear concerns that the H-2B visa program takes jobs away from Americans and gives them to foreign workers. This is simply not the case. Employers can only apply to hire H-2B visa workers if they are unable to find American workers to fill open jobs. Additionally, the jobs that H-2B visa workers are hired for are often seen as undesirable by American workers because they are short-term or temporary jobs. Our office hears from South Dakota businesses all the time who are struggling to find employees to hire. For these businesses, being able to hire a few H-2B visa workers each year is a matter of staying open or facing the prospect of closing down.
As jobs are created and our economy grows, we must utilize highly effective programs such as the H-2B visa program if we are to ever fully reach our economic potential. Since the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was signed into law in December 2017, growth in real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has averaged 3.3 percent over the last three quarters and almost 2.3 million new jobs have been created as of December 2018. The high number of new jobs coupled with the low unemployment rate means we have a workforce shortage. H-2B visa workers can fill these jobs to keep our economy strong.
I recently joined a bipartisan group of senators to send a letter to congressional leadership urging them to provide a long-term solution for the H-2B visa program in any government funding bill agreed upon to end the partial government shutdown. Recent filings show the statutory cap of 66,000 H-2B visas, set decades ago, is inadequate to meet the demands of today’s seasonal businesses. On Jan. 1, 2019, the Department of Labor’s iCERT system — where employers seeking H-2B visa workers request temporary labor certifications — crashed due to the record high number of requests. Before the crash, iCERT received more than 97,000 applications for the 33,000 available visas for the second half of the fiscal year.
South Dakota’s workforce is dependent on temporary, H-2B visa workers to fill important short-term, seasonal jobs each year. It is clear that we need a permanent solution that raises the cap of H-2B visas available to employers each year based on need rather than an arbitrary number. I am committed to working with my colleagues in Congress, as well as the administration, to find a real solution to this issue so our local businesses can thrive.
Mike Rounds represents South Dakota in the U.S. Senate.
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