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Thune Reintroduces Bill to Prioritize H-2B Visa Allocation to Low Unemployment States

“South Dakota has remained open for business, and it continues to see high demand for supplemental H-2B workers.”

March 1, 2021

Washington — 

U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) today reintroduced the Prioritizing Help to Businesses Act, legislation to allocate additional H-2B visas to states with the lowest unemployment rates. Specifically, the bill would set aside up to 2,500 H-2B visas for states at or below 3.5 percent unemployment, with a capped increase of 25 percent over the previous year’s H-2B total. This visa reform legislation would ensure that additional visas are provided when there is insufficient domestic labor supply in a given state, while simultaneously relieving demand for the annual nationwide pool of 66,000 H-2B visas.

“Many states continue to face high unemployment rates that have been driven by the pandemic, but South Dakota has remained open for business, and it continues to see high demand for supplemental H-2B workers,” said Thune. “South Dakota’s economy has rebounded to 3 percent unemployment, tied for the lowest in the nation. As a result, industries such as tourism, hospitality, and landscaping have worker shortages that leave them unable to operate at higher capacities. It’s become a chronic problem in some sectors of the state’s economy, and my bill would provide needs-based stability and certainty so our economy can fire on all cylinders.”

“The South Dakota Visitor Industry Alliance gives full support on this proposal,” said Gwyn Wathen, chairman of the Board of the South Dakota Visitor Industry Alliance.  “The H-2B Visa program has been a long standing issue that VIA has supported for years and still supports. This program helps fill the need for employees in all positions throughout the tourism industry. This program provides hardworking and talented individuals that contribute to the success of our industry. VIA welcomes the chance to make this program successful for South Dakota once again. These are challenging times to find employees, with the help of this bill, those challenging times decrease tremendously. Thank you so much Senator Thune!”

“The Forest Resources Association appreciates Senator Thune’s consistent support for the H-2B program and his recognition that the current H-2B visa cap is woefully outdated and fails to meet the needs of our modern economy,” said Deb Hawkinson, president of the Forest Resources Association. “The H-2B program provides critical support for permanent U.S. jobs in the forestry sector, as nearly 1.5 billion trees are planted each year by seasonal workers with H-2B visas. Senator Thune’s efforts to make available additional seasonal visas would help ensure the continued health of forests in South Dakota and throughout America.”


Summary of the Prioritizing Help to Businesses Act:

For states at or below a 3.5 percent unemployment rate, this bill would exempt up to 2,500 H-2B workers for each state from the annual national cap of 66,000 visas. This would provide baseline support for states that are at or near full employment, while also providing national H-2B cap relief.

Each qualifying state’s exempted visas would be allocated by a state-level lottery, and such states that had fewer than 2,500 H-2B visas in the previous year could not increase above the previous year’s H-2B number by more than 25 percent (still up to 2,500). The per-state limit is intended to prevent a disproportionate benefit for states that have a heavy reliance on the H-2B program. Conversely, the per-state growth limit is intended to insulate states from experiencing drastic changes to their labor force, while still providing needed supplemental workers. This would also discourage an overreliance on the H-2B program.

Qualifying states could still receive additional H-2B visas from the national cap of 66,000, which is also typically processed through a national lottery due to high demand. States with unemployment rates above 3.5 percent would still draw from this pool, as well.

Using December 2020 unemployment rates, only South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Vermont would qualify for the guaranteed visas provided by the Prioritizing Help to Businesses Act. By comparison, 21 states met the 3.5 unemployment threshold when this bill was introduced in the 116th Congress. At that time, it was estimated that the bill would have provided an additional 36,000 H-2B visas. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics will release the State Employment and Unemployment data for January 2021 on March 15, 2021.


More on the H-2B visa program:

The H-2B non-agricultural temporary worker program allows U.S. employers to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary non-agricultural jobs when employers are unable to fill positions from the local workforce. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers the H-2B program within the Department of Homeland Security, currently divides the 66,000 annual visa cap between two halves of the fiscal year (33,000 visas per half fiscal year). According the Department of Labor, U.S. employers applied for more than 96,888 H-2B worker visas for the second half of the fiscal year.