Wage Data Undercuts Claims Of Worker Shortage In Seasonal Jobs

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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Employers of seasonal labor and the lawmakers who represent them are demanding the Trump administration raise the cap on guest worker visas because they supposedly can’t find enough Americans to fill job vacancies.

But wage trends in many job fields covered by the H-2B visa program suggest claims of a chronic worker shortage are overblown, according to a new report from the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS).

CIS Director of Research Steven Camarota compared U.S. government wage data for eight job categories from 2007 to average wages in the same fields from 2013 to 2015, the last year for which data is available. He found that inflation-adjusted wages increased in just two of the categories and either stagnated or fell for the other six. Collectively, real wages across the H-2B categories were 1.3 percent lower in 2015 than they were in 2007.

If employers were struggling with labor shortages, Camarota said, it’s unlikely that wages would be stuck at or below their pre-Great Recession levels.

“In economics, the price of anything — steel, wheat, or workers — rises if demand outstrips supply and, of course, the price of workers is primarily wages,” he wrote in a blog post Tuesday. “However, wage data shows in both the long and short term there have been little to no wage increases in many of the most common H-2B occupations, and in many cases wages show an outright decline.”

The H-2B visa is a seasonal guest worker program that allows non-agricultural companies to bring in foreign labor if they are unable to find suitable employees domestically. Employers must also guarantee the foreign hires won’t “adversely affect” wages of American workers. The program has been a major point of friction between the Trump administration and lawmakers of both parties, who say their states’ restaurants, resorts and seafood and landscaping industries need to bring in more foreign workers to stay afloat. (RELATED: Businesses Claim That Without H-2B Visa Expansion, Lawns Will Be Left Unmowed)

By law, the annual limit for H-2B visas is set at 66,000, half for the winter season and half for the summer. In the past, workers who had previously come to the U.S. on seasonal visas were given a “returning worker” exemption and not counted against the cap.

Congress didn’t reauthorize the returning worker provision this year, but lawmakers gave Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly the authority to unilaterally boost the number of visas by as much as 70,000 for the summer season. In response to complaints from industry groups, senators from both parties are now pressuring Kelly to raise the limit.

North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis is trying to force the administration’s hand by placing a “hold” on Lee Francis Cissna, Trump’s nominee to head the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Senators often use the tactic of delaying movement on a particular vote or nominee in order gain concessions from the administration on a pet issue.

A Tillis spokesperson told the Washington Times that a failure to approve more H-2B visas would “negatively impact seasonal small businesses and American workers across the nation this summer” and that “the hold is in place while these concerns are being addressed with DHS.”

Camarota argued the rationale for approving more H-2B visas is “highly questionable” light of the government’s own data, which shows that wages have largely fallen in the low-skill occupations seasonal workers often fill.

“Allowing wages to increase can be seen as a positive development because it reduces social inequality and encourages work,” Camarota wrote. “But even assuming that rising wages are a negative development that must be addressed by increased immigration, there is still no evidence in the wage data that workers are in short supply. So the stated reason for the increase in the H-2B program is unsupported by ACS wage data.”

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