After eight straight years of growth and job creation, hotels are a driving economic force in communities across America. The hotel industry supports 8 million jobs and is extremely dynamic, and its success depends on the hardworking women and men who make it go.
At the same time, one of the most urgent challenges facing our industry today is filling critical service positions. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that there are more than 600,000 job vacancies in the hospitality sector. With unemployment approaching 4 percent nationally, the tightening labor market makes it even more challenging to attract and retain talent. Employers first look to the U.S. domestic workforce to meet their labor needs, but oftentimes there are no workers available or interested in temporary, seasonal positions. This problem is exacerbated during the busy summer travel season, when hotels are operating at a higher capacity and need additional temporary workers to meet the needs of their guests.
This is why legal guest worker programs such as the H-2B visa program are so critically important to the hospitality industry. They serve as a bridge to help hotels and other industries meet their seasonal demand for temporary labor and run successful, vibrant businesses. Through the H-2B program, well-vetted, legal guest workers come to the United States for seasonal employment and then return to their home countries. Most companies that use the H-2B program are small businesses, such as independent hotels and resorts in vacation destinations. H-2B visas allow businesses to operate at greater capacity, retain their full-time domestic workers, and contribute to their local economies. Higher hotel occupancy rates mean more guests are shopping at local businesses, dining in local restaurants, and bringing higher tax revenues to the local community. In fact, according to one study, every one H-2B worker creates and sustains 4.64 American jobs.
Unfortunately, the demand for H-2B workers far exceeds the number made available by Congress. On January 1, the first day seasonal businesses could file for the visas, the Department of Labor received applications for 81,600 H-2B positions for the six-month period that began April 1—far exceeding the 33,000 visas available during that time. As a result, businesses that did not receive H-2B visas and can’t otherwise meet their seasonal labor needs will be forced to operate at a lower capacity this summer. In some extreme cases, the businesses may close altogether. The lost economic opportunity has a ripple effect on entire communities.
The good news is that for the second consecutive year, Congress has provided a temporary reprieve for employers who rely on the H-2B visa program. In late March, Congress passed the 2018 Omnibus Appropriations bill, which included language authorizing the Secretary of Homeland Security to raise the H-2B cap up to as high as 129,547 visas, if there is a proven economic need. Active and vocal engagement from the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) and our members was instrumental in securing the visa expansion. AHLA is working with the Administration to quickly implement this provision to accommodate the high demand for spring and summer guest workers.
The challenge is that this solution is only temporary. As co-chair of the H-2B Workforce Coalition, AHLA is working with Congressional leaders and other affected industries to identify a permanent solution to the seasonal labor crisis many of our properties face. Hoteliers can help by urging their elected officials to cosponsor and support legislation that will permanently reform the H-2B program. Two such bills are the Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act, which was introduced by Senators Thom Tillis and Angus King, and the Strengthen Employment and Seasonal Opportunities Now (SEASON) Act, introduced by Representative Steve Chabot.
The hotel industry thrives because our employees are as global as our guests. We are proud of the fact that a large component of our workforce is composed of international workers, including those here on a temporary basis. We will continue to press Congress for a permanent legislative fix to the H-2B program and on broader immigration reform to ensure our industry can continue to grow and meet the needs of our guests.
About the Author
Brian Crawford is senior vice president and head of government affairs at AHLA.