In a new report, EPI Director of Immigration Law and Policy Research Daniel Costa shows that there is little evidence of worker shortages in H-2B jobs at the national level. Regardless of labor market realities, the Trump administration announced today—at the request of employers and under pressure from corporate lobbyists and some members of Congress—that it would expand the H-2B guestworker program by 15,000 visas for fiscal year 2017.
“Expanding the H-2B program without reforming it to improve protections and increase wages for migrant workers will essentially allow unscrupulous employers to carve out an even larger rights-free zone in the low-wage labor market,” said Costa.
The last 12 years of data on wages and unemployment suggest there is very little evidence of labor shortages in the 10 largest H-2B occupations.
The Trump administration’s announcement today that it will increase the number of H-2B guestworker visas comes after Congress gave it the authority to do so in May via the 2017 omnibus appropriations legislation (which funds the operation of the federal government). The 15,000 visas are in addition to the current annual limit of 66,000.
Costa explains that the H-2B program should not be expanded—it should be reformed. There are numerous cases of litigation, reports in the media, and government audits documenting how migrants employed through the H-2B program are often exploited and robbed by employers and are sometimes victims of human trafficking. While these egregious examples are clear legal violations, much of the abuse and discrimination in the H-2B program is legal, as employers have been allowed to underpay H-2B workers for years thanks to loopholes in wage regulations. And because U.S. workers are forced to compete with vulnerable H-2B workers, wages and working conditions for all workers in major H-2B occupations are degraded.
“There’s no question that the H-2B program needs major reforms to protect both migrant and American workers,” said Costa. “But any push to expand H-2B should have been made through the regular legislative process so members of Congress are accountable for their votes.”
The fact that wages were stagnant or declined in nine of the top 10 H-2B occupations and only increased more than a total of $0.61 cents in one occupation from 2004 to 2016, combined with persistently high unemployment rates over the same period, makes it highly unlikely that labor shortages exist at the national level in any of the top 10 H-2B occupations. Even considering the uptick in wage growth since 2014, the available evidence suggests that there is still slack in the labor market for H-2B occupations, 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 H-2B 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 from 2004 to 2016 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, or if they offered more attractive wages and benefits (including transportation and housing to workers outside the local area).