Admitting temporary workers into the US will speed up disaster recovery

Admitting temporary workers into the US will speed up disaster recovery
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With spring break just around the corner, coastal bend cities in Texas are encouraging winter-weary travelers to visit. The hope is that visitors will infuse cash back into Corpus Christi, Port Aransas, and Rockport, hit by hurricane Harvey just six months ago. Still struggling to rebuild and short on labor, Houston and its surrounding suburbs are not yet ready to welcome thousands of tourists into their shops, beaches, and restaurants this spring.

When Hurricane Harvey smacked Houston and devastated the Texas coastline in August, the aftermath saw homes destroyed, vehicles totaled, schools shuttered, drinking water contaminated, and businesses ravaged. The storm caused over $125 billion worth of damage, and displaced 13 million people from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

In addition to emergency funding, the city desperately needed laborers to erect shelters and temporary housing, restore power, and begin a massive cleanup, but few were available.


About two months after Harvey hit, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were 227,000 unfilled construction jobs. Even though Houston issued more than double the average number of permits for building single-family homes, homeowners are still waiting for new homes because no one is available to build them.

Employers in the Florida Keys are also reporting devastating labor shortages in the wake of Hurricane Irma. And shortages are not only affecting disaster-torn areas, but areas in need of renovation, and regions seeing growth.

When Harvey hit, job openings in the U.S. reported a record high at 6.2 million, with openings in construction increasing by the third highest number of any industry. Even though construction pay is nearly 10 percent higher$29.24/hour — than the private sector average, nearly 82 percent of construction firms surveyed from the Associated General Contractors of America report said it will become harder to hire workers in 2018.

Labor shortages will be exacerbated by the staggering number of recent of disasters. In 2017 alone, states in the U.S. made 135 major disaster declarations, requesting that the federal government provide relief for disasters ranging from hurricanes, to floods, to wildfires and tornadoes — all are increasing both in frequency and economic cost; the wildfires that occurred in Northern California’s wine country this year were the costliest in history, with claims nearing $9.4 billion.

These shortfalls intensify when there are multiple disasters close in geographic proximity or multitude. The 2017 hurricane season is officially the most expensive on record, with two major hurricanes — Harvey and Irma — hitting the same coastlines, and Hurricane Maria ravaging Puerto Rico. All told, the U.S. suffered more than $200 billion worth of damage from 17 named storms.

When Hurricane Katrina stuck New Orleans in 2005, immigrants were welcomed  to the city to work as carpenters, electricians, and plumbers. At the time, it was much easier for construction firms to find laborers in a hurry when it came time to cleanup and rebuild because the Bush administration chose to ignore the legal status of the largely undocumented population that helped rebuild the city. Under the Trump administration, that is no longer the case, and many disaster areas are reeling.

The logical step to filling the emergency needs created by national disasters is by increasing the availability of labor through our existing temporary worker visa system. But the government needs to let in more foreign workers — specifically H2A and H2B visa holders — when there are natural disasters that require an influx of laborers.

Right now, the U.S. allows a number of temporary workers — H2A (agricultural) and H2B (non-agricultural) — each year. Employers sponsoring both H2A and H2A workers must make sure that the temporary workers will not adversely affect wages or working conditions of similarly employed workers in the U.S.  

Congress has set the H2A visa cap (limit) at 66,000 per fiscal year, with 33,000 visas granted for workers who begin employment in the first half of the 12-month period and 33,000 visas for workers who begin employment in the second half. There is no annual cap on visas for H2A workers.

This year, on Jan. 1 — the first day seasonal businesses could file for the visas — employers sent the Department of Labor applications covering 81,600 jobs, far exceeding the 33,000 H2A visas available during that time.

Making H2A and H2A visas the avenue for additional “disaster labor” makes sense because it covers the industries most affected by disasters, including agriculture and construction, and because the work for both visas is temporary in nature. However, in order to ensure that laborers are available when needed by a particular state, it is necessary to exempt these disaster laborers from the H2Acap, and allow their applications to be processed quickly.

Fast-tracking disaster workers also ensures that each worker is thoroughly vetted and cleared to work in the country, and protects them against potential abuses by employers, like those some undocumented workers faced after Katrina when employers refused to pay them.

Making sure temporary disaster workers are available for cleanup and rebuilding will expedite recovery efforts in areas stressed by hurricanes, wildfires, and tornadoes.

Kristie De Peña is the director of immigration and senior counsel with the Niskanen Center, a think tank and advocacy organization that promotes pragmatic immigration policies. She earned her J.D. from the University of Iowa College of Law, and an LL.M. in National Security and Foreign Policy from George Washington University School of Law.