Pictured above: At Congressman Lee Zeldin’s March 20 press conference in Westhampton.

The United States has reached its cap of H2B guest worker visas for the April 1 to Sept. 30 period, leaving many local employers who rely on immigrant workers in the lurch.

This program allows 33,000 seasonal workers into the country during each six month period, though the six month period that includes the summer is far more critical, especially in a summer tourist area like the East End. 

Employers requested a record number of these visas from U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services this winter and the agency reached the cap on the number of visas it could issue for this summer by mid-February.

This visa is different from the H2A visa, which doesn’t have a cap and can be used to hire agricultural workers.

Congressman Lee Zeldin said he’s pushing the Department of Homeland Security to raise the cap on these visas at a press conference at Peat & Son Nursery in Westhampton on March 20.

“If you employed every single able bodied person in Suffolk County it would still not be enough to fill all of the open positions these business owners have,” said Mr. Zeldin. “It is a great problem to have when our local economy has more available jobs than people available to fill the positions, but it is imperative our employers are able to somehow fill their work force legally and immediately. Peak season is upon us and the Secretary of Homeland Security must utilize her authority to raise the cap to ensure Suffolk County businesses have the workforce they need for this peak season as well as stability and consistency in the years ahead.”

In May of 2018, facing a shortage of visas for the summer season, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen agreed to release 15,000 more H2B visas for the summer 2018 season, to be used by businesses that would fail without foreign labor. DHS released a similar number of extra H2B visas in 2017.

But Ms. Nielsen criticized Congress for not acting on visa reform in her announcement of the 2018 visa release.

“We are once again in a situation where Congress has passed the buck and turned a decision over to DHS that would be better situated with Congress, who knows the needs of the program,” she wrote in a statement at the time. “As Secretary, I remain committed to protecting U.S. workers and strengthening the integrity of our lawful immigration system and look forward to working with Congress to do so.”

“It’s no secret that our sleepy little hamlet of Montauk has become a well-known and extremely popular vacation destination,” said Paul Monte, President of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce, at Mr. Zeldin’s press conference. “Each year, thanks to our residents and loyal visitors, hundreds of millions of dollars in spending are generated just by the accommodations, food & beverage and retail industries in our little hamlet. Over the past ten years it has become increasingly difficult to find homegrown labor to fill our seasonal positions, and now with our booming economy and record low unemployment, it is almost impossible. This program is the lifeblood of our resort town and many others just like it throughout America. Without the seasonal workers provided by this program, many businesses would be forced to scale back on their services or in some cases actually close their doors for good.”

‘The workforce provided by the H-2A Visa Program is vital to enabling the farmers in Suffolk County to continue to feed our local communities,” agreed Rob Carpenter, Director of Long Island Farm Bureau. “At  every level – from the farms to the halls of Congress – it is critical that everyone understands what an important role this program, and the workforce it provides, plays in our communities and for our small businesses that are the backbone of our towns”

“Year after year, we experience the same uncertainty, which hurts the potential growth of our business and our local economy, said landscaper Gordon Andrews of Hampton Bays. “If we are unable to fill these jobs with the available U.S. workforce, we must be able to fill them immediately through the H-2B program.”     

“As a business owner, the ability to provide for my customers during peak season is reliant on the workforce provided through the H-2B Visa Program,” said John Tortorella of J. Tortorella Pools in Southampton. ”In addition to lifting the current H-2B visa cap, there are vital reforms that must be made to the underlying program so business owners like myself, don’t have to worry about having the labor we need season after season.”

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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