WASHINGTON – Maryland lawmakers vowed quick action Thursday on a bill to boost the number of visas for seasonal workers, who are “desperately” needed for Maryland’s seafood and landscaping industries.
“We’re talking about a crisis that is affecting Maryland businesses,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., one of dozens of senators and congressmen who are sponsoring the Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act.
The act would suspend the cap on H2B visas, which allow foreign workers to temporarily come to this country to fill seasonal jobs that employers cannot fill with Americans.
The number of such visas is capped at 66,000 per year. But that allocation ran out after just a few months this year, before summer industries could apply.
The bill would suspend the cap for two years for seasonal workers who have been here on an H2B visa within the last three years. Supporters said they hope to act quickly on the bill, which would be a stopgap until a more permanent solution can be drafted.
“American companies desperately need seasonal workers so their businesses can survive the summer,” Mikulski said in a prepared statement.
Not everyone is in favor of bringing in more seasonal help, however.
“We should not have a class of foreign workers doing jobs that Americans won’t do,” said Jack Martin, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Martin said temporary worker programs lead to a “distortion of the labor market.” His group instead advocates higher wages for those jobs, which would encourage American workers to take those jobs.
But Maryland labor officials welcomed the House and Senate bills, which were also sponsored by Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., and Reps. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, and Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington.
“We would certainly be in support of any legislation that will raise the cap,” said Elizabeth Williams, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
Maryland businesses apply for H2B visas with the department’s assistance. Williams said that the landscaping industry is the largest user of the H2B visa program in Maryland, followed by sports and recreation businesses.
She said that while Maryland’s seafood industry does not need as many visas — applying for 948, to the 3,625 applications for landscaping jobs — it is hit hardest by the shortage, since immigrant workers make up “a tremendous amount” of that workforce.
Landscapers are the largest user of the H2B workers not only in Maryland, but nationally as well.
Tom Delaney, director of legislative affairs for the Professional Land Care Network, said that many of the network’s members have been caught by the cap this year.
“It’s very devastating for a lot of them,” Delaney said. He said his organization was working with the other affected industries to support the legislation.
“We really applaud this being introduced,” Delaney said.
Congress will have to act quickly in order to make a difference: The beginning of the summer season for Maryland industries is only a few months away.
“We are working as fast as we can,” said Mikulski, who called the issue an 11 on a scale of one to 10.
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