In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States has seen a significant number of labor shortages across many industries, resulting in empty grocery stores and retail shelves, rising inflation, and reduced store hours despite increased consumer spending. The difficulty in finding and retaining workers could be attributed to the significant decline in foreign-born workers in recent years and the “The Great Resignation,” an increase in Americans leaving their current industries for better-paying jobs.
In addition, according to CNBC, “Economists say changing demographics like aging and retiring workers are a factor behind the shortages, as well as border controls and immigration limits, and demands for better pay and flexible working arrangements.” Other factors include the rising cost of childcare and virtual schooling, forcing the working parents to stay at home, and the relocation of eligible workers to more affordable housing elsewhere due to a decrease in income because of early-pandemic stay-at-home orders.
The widespread labor shortage makes a case for immigration reform more compelling, as the immigrant population could supply the American workforce with much-needed labor.
Industries hit hard by the pandemic
Industries most affected by the pandemic include construction, transportation, warehousing, logistics, hospitality, and small businesses like salons, dry cleaners, restaurants, and repair services. According to a research survey by New American Economy, these industries have increased job postings by more than 65% in 2021 compared to the same period in 2019.
For newcomers to America, these shortages may provide new opportunities. For example, in a Forbes article about the trucking shortage, the American Trucking Association’s chief economist commented, “To keep up with demand over the next decade, trucking will need to recruit nearly one million new drivers to close the gap caused by demand for freight, projected retirements, and other issues.”
Workers now have bargaining power as many industries are desperate to fill the labor gaps affecting their bottom lines. This can be beneficial to workers in the United States that are open to learning new skills and trades.
The economic benefit of immigrants
A job openings and labor turnover survey from the U.S. Department of Labor shows that there are currently over 10 million open job positions across the country in various industries, and 8.4 million Americans are unemployed. However, for a variety of reasons, American’s aren’t filling the labor gap, especially in sectors like childcare, logistics, construction, transportations, and hospitality.
Changing outdated immigration policies would increase the available pool of childcare providers, allowing parents to rejoin the workforce. Distribution warehouses, the trucking industry, manufacturers, and more would also benefit from an increase in an immigrant workforce. A wider talent pool of able-bodied workers could ease the current supply chain crisis.
The solution to the deepening labor shortage seems simple. Immigrants willing to work are already in the country, and foreigners are eager to enter the country on work visas. Research has shown that an immigrant workforce has little to no negative impact on American-born workers’ wages or employment. However, the Biden Administration struggles to make any significant changes to the current restrictive immigration policies.
Government efforts slow to provide labor shortage remedies
Many news reports are currently covering various supply shortages as the holiday shopping season has begun. Manufacturing bottlenecks and shipping delays have resulted in cargo piling up in port terminals, rail yards, and warehouses. For example, there are not enough workers at the Port of Los Angeles to unload the supplies or drive the cargo to its next destination, causing delays for shipments across the U.S.
To help remedy the problem, President Joe Biden announced the Port of Los Angeles will be open 24/7, with logistics companies FedEx and UPS making similar pledges. However, a more permanent solution would be to increase immigration by raising the annual caps on employment-based visas.
Unfortunately, many failed efforts have been made to quicken the immigration process for essential workers and “Dreamers” through a budget reconciliation bill. On the upside, some progress has been made as hundreds of thousands of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders have received program extensions allowing them to continue working and living in the United States. Since January 2021, Myanmar and Venezuela have been added to the list of eligible countries. In addition, benefits have been extended into 2022 and beyond for immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
A social policy and climate change bill, also known as the Build Back Better Act, has recently been passed by the House of Representatives and is now up for review by the Senate. If approved by the Senate, this bill would allow undocumented people present in the U.S. since before 2011 up to 10 years of work authorization. In addition, the provision offers a parole process that will enable non-citizens to stay in the country for five years with the option to extend for another five years. Furthermore, the bill provides for visa recapture, preventing the loss of some 222,000 family-based visas and 157,000 employment-based visas that would otherwise have expired at the end of this fiscal year.
Many immigration advocates expressed frustration in the lack of citizenship opportunities within the bill. Unfortunately, many prior iterations of the bill, including citizenship access for Dreamers, had failed to receive the votes needed to pass through the House.
Current visa options for unskilled workers
Until reform is agreed upon in Washington, DC., many “unskilled” immigrant workers (without advanced training, a specialized skill set, or a college degree) have two options to work legally in the United States.
One of the only existing visa programs designed to bring foreign workers to fill unskilled job roles is the H-2 Visa program. The program is capped at 66,000 temporary foreign workers per year. However, agricultural workers are exempt from the cap. Industries that benefit from this visa program range from tourism to fishing. The Biden administration added 22,000 visas earlier this year and could add even more going forward. However, this program temporarily helps industries and currently does not provide visa holders with green card eligibility.
There are two types of H-2 visas:
- H-2A – Temporary, nonimmigrant workers that perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature. H-2A visa holders can initially stay in the United States no more than one year but can extend their stay a maximum of 3 years, in 1-year increments.
- H-2B – Temporary, nonimmigrants that perform nonagricultural labor or services in the United States. Employment must be temporary for a limited time, such as a one-time occurrence, seasonal need, peak-load need, or intermittent need. An H-2B visa can only be used once for the period determined in the visa petition.
EB-3 immigrant visas allow certain professional workers, skilled workers, and unskilled workers to obtain a U.S. green card or lawful permanent resident status. Applying for an EB-3 visa is a more expensive and lengthy process than an H-2 visa but does provide a pathway to citizenship. The subgroups of this visa are:
- Professional workers with a U.S. baccalaureate degree or foreign degree equivalent, and the baccalaureate degree is the typical requirement for entry into the occupation.
- Skilled workers who have at least two years of job experience or training.
- Workers capable of performing unskilled labor (requiring less than two years’ training or experience) that is not of a temporary or seasonal nature.
Professional and skilled workers share the same allotment of visas each year. However, unskilled workers must draw from a separate pool of only 10,000 visas, making waiting for visa approval even longer. Visit the State Department Visa Bulletin for current visa processing times.
The future of the American workforce
COVID-19 further exasperated the labor shortage that the United States was already facing, regardless of the pandemic. U.S. Census Bureau projections show that one in five U.S. residents will be older than age 65 by 2030. For the first time in U.S. history, older people will outnumber children. Due to the aging of the U.S. workforce, there are fewer able-bodied American-born workers available to fill jobs requiring strenuous physical labor, eventually forcing the economy to look outside of the United States to fill labor gaps.
The U.S. economy can only benefit by bringing in more foreign workers. By implementing long-term immigration reform, much-needed workers of prime workforce age will be available to fill job shortages and create additional jobs to alleviate supply chain demand. This provides a win-win situation for foreign-born workers striving for a better life in the United States and the U.S. economy in desperate need of employees.
While new job opportunities are available for immigrants, the constantly evolving United States immigration policies make it difficult to obtain a visa without the assistance of a reputable immigration lawyer. If you are currently in the United States and need an adjustment in status or want to know more about your employment-based visa options, the qualified attorneys at Stump and Associates are ready to help.
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