Every year the U.S. State Department issues up to 66,000 seasonal visas to foreign workers under a guest worker program known as H-2B. Those workers man the crab-picking plants in Maryland, the beach resorts in the Carolinas and construction sites and other business operations all across the country when employers can't find enough domestic workers to fill those jobs. But this year many of the visas were delayed because of rule changes implemented by the Obama administration raising wages for workers in the program, which some unions have called exploitative and the Southern Poverty Law Center described as "close to slavery." Beset by multiple legal challenges aimed mainly at blocking the wage hikes, the processing of applications for H-2B visas was temporarily halted in March by a court order. The federal government began processing applications again in April, and officials at the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services say they've caught up on the backlog of visas. But many businesses suffered as a result of the delay. A small hotel in Nantucket, for example, had no H-2B staff to clean rooms, change linens and prepare breakfast over the busy Memorial Day weekend, said Jane Nichols Bishop, president of Peak Season Workforce, a Mashpee, Massachusetts-based staffing company that specializes in international workers. She said about 40 percent of her clients were impacted by the late arrival of workers this year due to the visa processing delays. The timing of the delays also couldn't have been much worse. They "occurred at the worst possible time, when businesses were busy ramping up for the summer season," said Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. "Had the suspension occurred three months earlier or later, it would not have had as much impact." But others say changes to the H-2B program have been long overdue. For instance, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, who lobbied for changes to the program in Washington earlier this year, said it was "riddled with bureaucracy and filled with outdated quotas." The sweeping immigration reform package recently approved by the U.S. Senate would expand the H-2B program but still retain its quota, although it would end the practice of counting returning H-2B workers in the cap. In Maryland, those workers account for 80 percent of the total each year, according to U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D- Maryland), who pushed for that change in the Senate bill. Republicans who control the U.S. House, however, have expressed concerns about the Senate's comprehensive immigration plan and may opt for piecemeal legislation instead. (STATELINE.ORG)
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