The issue with a visa cap

“Because some missed the cap, we are not moving the amount of crawfish we should. We’re limited on how many can go to processors. It’s caused a depression in the price of crawfish.” —Brian Breaux, associate commodity director, Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation (File photo)

Amid all the immigration rhetoric, lawmakers in the nation’s capital have considered measures to cap the nation’s H-2A visa program, which allows for temporary foreign workers in the agriculture sector. On the flip side, Louisiana employers of H-2B visa workers—used for temporary non-agricultural workers—know all too well the struggles of dealing with a capped labor program.

The H-2B program caps its visa allowance at 66,000 visas in the U.S. per year, with 33,000 permitted in the first half of the fiscal year, Oct. 1 to March 31, and 33,000 in the second half, April 1 to Sept. 30.

However, in previous years, H-2B had a returning-worker exemption, which allowed workers from prior years to return without being counted toward the cap. But the exemption expired last year, and lawmakers have yet to extend it. Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Mike Strain says hundreds of thousands of H-2B workers were allowed into the U.S. before the exemption expired.

“It’s going to be problematic,” Strain says. “Hopefully employers get their workers in.”

In the seafood processing industry, some haven’t, says Brian Breaux, associate commodity director for the Louisiana Farm Bureau. Employers hire H-2B workers to peel and process seafood, especially during Louisiana’s lucrative crawfish season, but this year the H-2B cap was reached before all applications were granted.

“Because some missed the cap, we are not moving the amount of crawfish we should,” Breaux says. “We’re limited on how many can go to processors. It’s caused a depression in the price of crawfish.”

Kevin Dartez, owner of Harvest Time Seafood in Abbeville, didn’t get his application granted before the first H-2B cap was reached. He applied for the second cap, but isn’t sure he’ll make that one either. Dartez usually hires about 30 H-2B workers to peel crabs and crawfish. Without the workers, he expects to have to sell the home he built for them—and even then his company may not survive.

“I’m done,” Dartez says. “I would have to change this company into something American workers want to do.”

Dartez’s frustration is that he and his workers always followed the rules. His H-2B employees have come here legally to work for him since 2002, and now they can’t.

“They’re punishing those who did it right,” Dartez says, “and I’m punished, too.”

Strain, who is also president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, is advocating for a five-year returning worker program to solve the issue. But no one is sure yet what’s coming down the pipe from Washington, D.C., concerning visas.

As for the H-2B cap, something has to give soon. For the six-month period beginning in April, there were 53,000 H-2B applications sent in for the 33,000 allowed slots, Breaux says.  

Sugar mill operators are particularly worried about the cap because they need H-2B workers at the end of the year for sugar cane harvesting—or grinding—season. Last year, their H-2B workers used the returning-worker exemption, Breaux says. They won’t be able to use it this year unless Congress passes an extension.

Alan Chatman is the assistant general manager at Alma Plantation sugar mill in Lakeland, which has been using the H-2B program for more than 25 years and hires about 40 visa workers for the three-month harvesting season. Because of the cap, the start of harvesting may be delayed at Alma this year.

“Due to nature of crop, we need to start processing sugar cane in mid-September,” Chatman says. “But we will not be able to get H-2B workers in until October because the April cap has already been filled.”

The same scenario played out in 2015 when Alma didn’t get visa workers in on time and had to delay processing by one week, which is precious time in the sugar cane industry.

“It definitely impacts growers in our area,” Chatman says. “The further along we get in the year, the closer we get to January, we stand the risk of a freeze, which damages cane.”

Chances are H-2B worker applications will be delayed again this year—or worse, not come at all, he says. The longer sugar cane has to stay in the field, the higher the risk of freeze damage, which would be a loss for both the farmers and the mill.

“There’s a disconnect between these programs and the people they serve,” Chatman says. “The H-2B program is not set up to work for our industry, yet that’s our only avenue to get skilled seasonal workers for the mill. There’s always a cap problem, and this is a time-sensitive business.”

Annie Ourso

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