International workers are the backbone of the Seaside Farm Market in the remote northern Outer Banks town of Corolla. Only 500 people live there, but up to 50,000 visit every week in the summer.
But for the first time in 23 years, the family-owned produce and seafood market didn’t open this summer. Owners Bill and Julie Grandy weren’t able to get the H-2B visas they needed to bring in the workers from Mexico they’ve employed for years.
They didn’t get a single local applicant for jobs advertised at $15 per hour, Bill Grandy said, calling Corolla a “black hole” for local labor. The husband and wife have both had to take other jobs.
“It’s devastated us,” he said. “We have a half a million dollar investment just sitting there generating no money. I don’t know how to describe it other than (total) disaster.”
H-2B visas are designed for businesses to fill seasonal non-agricultural jobs. In North Carolina, they’re mainly used in the landscaping, tourism and seafood processing industries. North Carolina uses more H-2B visas than any state besides Texas and Colorado, receiving 4,324 worker certifications in fiscal year 2017, according to data from the Office of Foreign Labor Certification.
President Donald Trump campaigned on promises to protect American jobs and has pledged to reform the H-1B program, which brings skilled workers to the U.S. for up to six years. But he’s remained mostly quiet regarding H-2B, which he’s used to hire dozens of workers for his properties, including the Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, according to the New York Times.
Across the country, 66,000 H-2B visas are allotted per fiscal year: 33,000 for winter and 33,000 for summer. In the past, returning workers have been able to come back without being counted against the cap. But Congress hasn’t renewed the returning worker exemption since it expired in September 2016. This year, the application process has been much more competitive.
Congress authorized the release of more visas in early May, and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly announced on June 21 that he’d issue more visas to assist seasonal businesses that “would be severely harmed” if they don’t get H-2B employees.
The additional visas will be a short-term fix, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said in a statement. Tillis, who’s lobbied for H-2B expansion, said he’s concerned about the visas’ timeline – Kelly said they won’t be available until late July, when much of the summer tourism season will have passed.
Tillis’ office said he’s advocated for prioritizing returning workers because they’ve worked legally in the past and obeyed U.S. immigration laws.
“American small businesses must have access to temporary, seasonal workers they need to sustain their businesses and support American jobs,” Tillis said in a statement. “Seasonal employers have been unfairly facing bureaucratic barriers through the H-2B program, and I will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress and the Department of Homeland Security to alleviate this problem facing small businesses across the country.”
And some of these businesses, like the Seaside Farm Market, worry about staying afloat with the visa uncertainty.
“We don’t know what the future of H-2B is going to be,” Grandy said. “If we can’t open next year, we might have to liquidate and go out of business.”
A local labor shortage
Across the state, employers rely on H-2B workers for seasonal jobs they say they can’t fill any other way.
Opponents of the H-2B program say it’s taking away jobs from American workers, but many business owners say they’d hire locally if they could. The program is expensive and bureaucratic, requiring employers to pay for each workers’ transportation to the U.S. and lawyers’ fees. They’re also required to prove that they’ve advertised positions locally and there aren’t enough U.S. workers to fill them.
Daniel Currin, president of Greenscape Inc. in Raleigh, said it’s hard to find seasonal landscaping workers because not as many people in the U.S. grow up in agricultural areas. He applied for and received 35 visas this year for workers from Mexico and Guatemala, but still wasn’t able to fill the remaining seasonal openings locally.
“Even though the H-2B program is unskilled labor, we need people who know how and want to work outside,” Currin said. “That’s where we’re going outside the U.S., to tap into those agrarian cultures that don’t exist as much here anymore.”
The company recently received 28 applications for three open driver positions, he said. But almost half didn’t show up for interviews, some failed background checks, some failed drug tests and some didn’t have driver’s licenses. He wasn’t able to offer any of the 28 applicants a job.
“If there were people who wanted to work seasonally, we’d hire them in a second over going through the H-2B program,” Currin said. “Every spring we try to do as much as possible to mitigate the need for visa workers, but there’s not enough we can do, so the H-2B program does a ton for us and the state for filling these open jobs.”
Ninety-three North Carolina employers applied for H-2B visas in fiscal year 2017, and two-thirds of those received all they applied for, according to Office of Foreign Labor Certification data. But more than 400 visa applications weren’t certified, leaving many companies with an unexpected shortage.
Fred Adams applied for 15 visas for his Morrisville construction company, but was denied. He said he’s found some local workers willing to take seasonal jobs, but not enough, which has limited his company’s sales.
“This isn’t a Republican or Democratic thing, but it turns into that,” Adams said. “Everybody wants to make it political. I wish they’d make it nonpolitical and run a program like they should.”
It’s hard to find local workers who are committed to working 55-hour weeks in construction jobs, said Maribell Romero, office manager for Slip General Concrete in Clinton. She’s applied for H-2B visas for the past two years to no avail, and plans to apply again in the next few weeks to bring in winter workers for two large construction jobs.
“We have the contract in our hands, but we just don’t know how we’re going to do it without any workers,” she said. “We might have to turn down jobs.”
Colon Grandy, whose brother Bill didn’t open his Corolla market this year, also uses the H-2B visa system to hire for his small business.
He submitted his visa paperwork for the Grandy Greenhouse and Farm Market the first day he could, and his agent told him 83,000 applications were submitted that day for the 33,000 summer visas. He received the 10 visas he applied for and hired 15 additional local workers.
The returning worker exemption made the system fair, he said, because once businesses proved themselves, they were exempt from the cap if they wanted to rehire people.
“That’s the beauty of the system,” he said. “You’re letting people legally enter the U.S. with a clean background, no criminal history and you know where they are at all given times. It just baffles me that we’re doing the right and legal way and yet we get punished for it.”
Without that exemption, it’s more like a lottery for the limited spots, Colon Grandy said.
“That’s no way to plan a business, depending on whether you won a lottery or not,” he said. “It’s like saying I’m going to plan on winning the lottery to fund my retirement.”
Taylor Blatchford: 704-358-5354, @blatchfordtr