~ Bipartisan letter requests additional H2-B visas needed to fulfill difficult labor demands ~

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) was joined by six of his Senate colleagues in calling on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to release the additional H-2B visas needed to support local seafood businesses in Virginia and states like Alaska, Maryland, and North Carolina. The letter, signed by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Dan Sullivan (D-AK), Thom Tillis (R-NC), and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), urges the DHS to quickly authorize additional visas for temporary non-agricultural workers so that seafood industries around the country can hire seasonal workers and continue operations.

“Many of the seafood businesses we represent are family-owned operations that go back multiple generations, often in rural areas of our states. Despite good faith efforts to find local seasonal workers, our seafood industries rely on H-2B workers for tough jobs such as shucking oysters and processing crabs,” wrote the Senators. “These businesses are entirely reliant on the forces of nature that determine, for example, when salmon will run and be ready for harvest. Without H-2B visas, some local businesses will be forced to reduce the size of their American workforces.”

“We urge the Department to promptly make available sufficient visas to meet the labor needs of our states’ seafood industries, and to announce its intent to do so by March 1, 2020,” they continued. “Local seafood businesses earn their livelihoods based on perishable products, and need H-2B workers to harvest and process their respective seafood products so they can sell those products. If these local businesses lose a customer base one year, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to come back into the industry. We have already heard from local businesses that will be forced to shut down ahead of the 2020 season if a sufficient number of Congressionally-authorized H-2B visas are not released.”

H-2B visas allow employers to temporarily hire nonimmigrants to perform nonagricultural labor or services in the United States if U.S. workers are not available, after completing rigorous application and certification process. These visas are critical to the survival of Virginia’s seafood industry – particularly the seafood processing community around the Chesapeake Bay. Last month, Sen. Warner met with Virginia seafood processors in Tappahannock, who expressed concern with their inability to fill their seasonal labor needs, resulting in lost supply agreements with grocery stores and other customer suppliers who are then forced to turn to foreign imports for their orders.

According to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s last complete study<https://www.vims.edu/_docs/fishing_economics.pdf> of this kind, the commercial seafood industry in Virginia generates $407.9 million in economic output, which includes all economic activity from harvesters to restaurants. Of that $407.9 million, 62 percent comes from seafood processing/wholesaling firms – the primary companies who rely on the H-2B worker program. Additionally, according to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, in 2017, Virginia oysters alone had a dockside value of more than $48.9 million dollars, followed by Quahog Clams with more than $47.6 million and Blue Crabs with more than $38 million in dockside value.

In the letter, the Senators note that the Congressionally-authorized FY20 Consolidated Appropriations Act gives the DHS Secretary, in consultation with the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), the authority to raise the cap on H2-B visas, and issue additional visas as needed.

Sen. Warner has long advocated for Virginia’s seafood processing industry – a community largely made up of rural, family-owned operations. Earlier this month, in a bipartisan call<https://www.warner.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/pressreleases?ID=A0414132-FA34-4FF9-BD07-CBA36E28E521>, he pressed DHS Secretary Wolf to release the additional Congressionally-authorized H-2B visas, to publicly announce this intent, and to do so as quickly as possible. Additionally, in January, he joined a bipartisan, bicameral letter<https://www.warner.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2020/1/warner-joins-colleagues-in-urging-administration-to-immediately-increase-h-2b-visas-to-support-virginia-s-seafood-industry> calling on the Administration to increase the statutory cap of H-2B visas for FY20. He also recently met with DOL Secretary Eugene Scalia to discuss the impact of the H-2B program on Virginia and urge the Secretary to work alongside DHS to release the additional visas in a timely fashion. Sen. Warner has previously introduced bipartisan legislation<https://www.warner.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2015/10/sen-warner-introduces-bipartisan-legislation-to-improve-h-2b-visa-program> to strengthen the H-2B visa program, and has requested an audit<https://www.warner.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2017/3/warner-tillis-lead-bipartisan-effort-outlining-concerns-with-h-2b-visa-cap> to determine the number of unused visas that could be made available to eligible petitioners.

The letter is available here<https://www.warner.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/1/6/1636e23a-a61f-4ddc-b659-fd265b97fda1/4A37C5896359C576AC84F6654D5168A5.2020-02-25-bipartisan-senate-letter-to-acting-secretary-wolf-final.pdf>.