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Foreign labor limits likely to leave seasonal American businesses in the lurch — again

Unprecedented demand — nearly 100,000 requests for 33,000 available visas — briefly crashed the online Department of Labor application system.
Image: Turfscape Inc. Landscape Technician Alexis Morales mows grass in Aurora, Ohio
Turfscape Inc. Landscape Technician Alexis Morales, an H-2B visa employee, mows grass at the Tara At Barrington Estates subdivision in Aurora, Ohio on Aug. 1, 2018. Founder and President of Turfscape Inc., George Hohman, says that his business has been suffering because of the visa shortage that limits the amount of foreign workers he is able to hire.Rachel Woolf / for NBC News

Aubrey Vincent is bracing for the unthinkable.

She first started working for her family's small business, Lindy's Seafood, at age 12. She watched it blossom into a regional staple in the crab town of Fishing Creek, Maryland, before taking it over. But for the second year in a row, companies like hers that rely on temporary foreign labor are poised to take a hard hit, or possibly close altogether.

“I'm second-generation and, at this point, it’s hard to think that maybe I can’t do this anymore, but that's essentially where we are," Vincent, 31, told NBC News. "We're in a worse position than we were last year.”

Banner Year Forecast For Lower Chesapeake Blue Crabs
Waterman Monroe Dorsey releases undersized blue crabs from their commercial boat near Hooper Island, Maryland, on June 8, 2016.Linda Davidson / The Washington Post/Getty Images

The Trump administration is once again planning to use a lottery system to dole out 33,000 H-2B visas — the government program that allows businesses like Lindy's Seafood to hire those temporary foreign workers — this spring, rather than the first-come, first-serve model used under previous administrations. Businesses strained by the change last year will find themselves competing against record demand this year, according to the Department of Labor statistics. Compounding the problem, experts said, is that Congress is no closer to reforming the program than it has been since it was enacted it in 1990, despite pleas from seasonal businesses and their associations to act.

“Last year, we lost six months of sales, business and income," Vincent said. "To have to go through that again this year, it's just a matter of how long can you work two months a year before you fold?”

President Donald Trump has long complained about the loss of American jobs to immigrants and overseas workers, despite documented evidence of his businesses relying on foreign labor and also using the H-2B program.

But Vincent said the visas help American businesses like hers stay afloat, which in turn also supports American jobs. She said she has exhausted efforts to recruit American workers because most are not interested in the laborious task of processing hundreds of barrels of fresh crab.

Due to the revenue hit in 2018, for instance, many of her full-time American workers had to leave last year to find different work.

“It was awful and I’m worried I can't ask them to come back this year,” she said about her full-time workers. “If it’s going to be more of the same I don’t want to see their families have to struggle.”

This year, the H-2B program received requests for nearly 100,000 foreign workers, roughly three times the number of visas available. Congress sets the limit at 66,000 and it's divided between the spring and fall. The demand this year, which briefly crashed the online Department of Labor application system, has put some businesses that rely heavily on them, such as landscaping and carnivals, in survival mode.

Vincent requested 105 foreign workers — a typical number for her — and will have to wait until April to find out if she will get them before her season kicks into high gear.

“I’m hoping people realize that these programs have the ability to benefit everyone if they're well-run and done efficiently,” she said. “They create American jobs and create a lot of opportunity in our community.”

Bill Sieling, the executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association in Maryland, implored Congress to fix the program or it could spell the end of some local industries that need the program to survive.

“It’s just a broken system,” he said. “And it's extremely unfair to the businesses.”

He added, "If you get below a certain threshold you're no longer an industry, you're a cottage; you're no longer a viable player in the industry and lose whatever marketing advantage you have. And that's probably what would happen if we don't come up with a solution for this."

The Department of Homeland Security, through Congress, has the authority to issue the visas. Last year, they issued an additional 15,000 visas to offer relief to businesses due to demand. In a statement to NBC News on Friday, the agency said it's committed to "upholding our nation’s immigration laws" while also thoroughly reviewing "employment-based visa programs" to make sure they align with Trump's pledge to put American workers first.

"USCIS will continue adjudicating all applications fairly, efficiently, and effectively on a case-by-case basis to determine if they meet all standards required under applicable law, policies, and regulations,” said Michael Bars, a spokesperson for DHS' U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“USCIS continues to grant the statutory level of H-2B visas set by Congress.”

Last year, landscaping was the top industry requesting workers, according to Department of Labor data. However, the industry has felt a real crunch over the past two years, Andrew Bray, a vice president at the National Association of Landscape Professionals, said.

Image: A landscaper mows grass at the Tara At Barrington Estates subdivision
Turfscape Inc. Landscape Technician Alexis Morales, an H-2B visa employee, mows grass at the Tara at Barrington Estates subdivision in Aurora, Ohio, on Aug. 1, 2018. Founder and president of Turfscape Inc., George Hohman, says that his business has been suffering because of the visa shortage that limits the amount of foreign workers he is able to hire.Rachel Woolf / for NBC News

“What we would like is some kind of common sense approach to make sure that the cap is based on demand and not some arbitrary number,” he said. “My members want nothing more than to help the U.S. economy and help American workers, but the reality is the H-2B program seriously helps everyone in that situation.”

Maryland-based Denison Landscaping is one of Bray's members that has been facing dire straits. Last year, the company, which also has offices in Delaware and Pittsburgh, canceled about $18 million in contracts because the company did not have the foreign labor it needed.

Josh Denison, a vice president at the family-run company, said that the business requested roughly 180 workers this year and if the request isn't fulfilled, it will be another blow to the company's bottom line.

The company has more than 600 employees and requests hundreds more in foreign workers each year to keep up with contracts. He said it's difficult to hire locally because most residents don't like the grueling physical labor, especially in an economy with low unemployment and a tight labor market.

“We are literally in the office disaster planning if we don't,” Denison said, adding that one potential contingency plan is to significantly scale back operations in Pittsburgh, for instance. But, he frets doing that because it would personally devastate one of his longterm supervisors at that location.

"This program is his life and the program is a way to make a living for him and his family," Denison said.

"It's a very, very cognizant thing throughout entire the organization that without our labor force, whether it be the year-round labor force or our seasonal H-2Bs, we don't have a job."