Correction: Lynn Zawojski is the owner of Sunnypoint Landscape with her husband Dave, not Sunnypoint Gardens, as originally stated in the article. Sunnypoint Gardens is owned by Tony and Kori Zawojski.
The “Buy American, Hire American” executive order signed by President Donald Trump in Kenosha on April 18 could mean the closure of some Door County businesses that rely on foreign workers for seasonal help.
The H-2B visa program allows up to 66,000 foreign, unskilled workers annually to temporarily work in the United States during the busy season of tourist destinations. The expiration of a returning worker exemption and the unlikelihood of expanding the program under the Trump administration has left businesses without workers as the busy season approaches.
“Not having help, we don’t know how we’re supposed to proceed,” said Lynn Zawojski, owner of Sunnypoint Landscape LLC in Egg Harbor. “We might downscale or consider going out of business. We don’t think we’re going to be the only one.”
Zawojski expected six foreign workers for the summer season under the H-2B visa program. She turned her application in on Jan. 2, expecting to have a foreign worker by the time she opened her business.
“So many people had filed at the same time so they got bombarded,” said Zawojski.
The reason so many people filed right at the start of the year is because Congress did not bring back an exemption for returning H-2B workers. The exemption, which expired in September 2016, meant that anyone who had an H-2B visa in the past three years could return without counting toward that 66,000 annual cap. Five of the six workers Zawojski expected for this year fell under that exemption. Nationally, 198,000 seasonal workers received the returning worker exemption. The businesses that expected them to return again this year must now receive their H-2B visas through the 66,000 cap, which is already full.
The visas are split up over two six-month periods, with 33,000 visas for workers that start between April and October and 33,000 for the other half of the year.
The visa cap for the April to October deadline was reached in record time on March 13. Last year, the cap was not reached until May 12. Zawojski said the agency she works with to get the visas for foreign workers was not able to provide a single visa to any of their clients.
The executive order signed by Trump in Kenosha focused primarily on H-1B visas, which allow hiring of foreign workers for highly specialized work. It ordered several members of the cabinet to evaluate and revise the H-1B visa program with a “Hire American” focus. While the order did not specifically address H-2B visas, it did set out rigorous enforcement of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which sets the 66,000 annual cap for H-2B visas, making changes to the cap or returning worker exemption unlikely.
But members of Congress are trying to bring the returning worker exemption back. A bill from Representatives William Keating (D-Mass.) and Jack Bergman (R-Mich.) would reinstate the seasonal worker exemption immediately. The bill is in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security. A group of senators have also called for an audit on the H-2B visa program to ensure every visa is actually being used.
A group of landscaping, construction, roofing and fencing companies in Texas went as far as suing the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to continue processing their H-2B visa applications.
“There is a workforce shortage so if you can’t bring these additional workers, where is the help going to come from?” Zawojski said. “I don’t know what it takes for them to realize that there is shortage.”
Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is currently at 3.4 percent while the national rate is 4.5 percent. Most labor economists say 5.5 percent is full employment, putting Wisconsin and the country in a workforce shortage.
What Each Visa Means
The United States uses visas to bring in foreign workers for many different reasons. Each reason has its own visa and the name for different visas is usually different by one letter or number. Here, we explain the visas you commonly see in the news and in Door County.
J-1 Summer Work Travel
Most businesses in Door County who hire foreign workers do so under the J-1 Summer Work Travel program. Students enrolled full-time in colleges or universities around the world come to work and travel in the United States between one and five month stretches. It is housed in the Department of State. J-1 visas are also given to teachers, physicians, au pairs and more, but under a different subsection of the J-1 program.
The H-1B visa is for highly skilled and specialized employees, typically in the tech sector. A minimum bachelor’s degree is required. Sometimes employers have to prove that they cannot find an American skilled enough to perform the job. H-1B visa holders can be in the United States for up to six years. The program is housed in the Department of Homeland Security.
The H-2B visa is for temporary non-agricultural workers, typically in seasonal employment such as tourism and landscaping. It usually lasts less than a year, but can be extended up to three years. The program is housed in the Department of Homeland Security.
The H-2A visa is for temporary agriculture workers. Farmers who grow cash crops and have a small window for increased employment needs commonly use them. They are not typically used by dairy farms because dairy farms need year-round employment. The program is housed in the Department of Homeland Security.