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News from EPI Wage theft in H-2B industries nears $2 billion as visa program grows

A new EPI report shows that about $1.8 billion was stolen from workers employed in the main H-2B industries over the last 20 years. This includes both migrant and U.S. workers in those industries. Despite the widespread exploitation of these workers, the H-2B visa program is growing and will reach its largest size ever in 2022.

No major reforms, however, have been undertaken to protect migrant workers in the H-2B program. This matters because employers will be sending more vulnerable workers into occupations where wage theft is common. 

The H-2B visa program, one of many U.S. temporary work visa programs, is intended to be used when employers face labor shortages in seasonal jobs, with the most common occupations including landscaping, construction, forestry, seafood, and meat processing, traveling carnivals, restaurants, and hospitality.

New data reveal that the number of H-2B workers is growing and in 2022 will surpass the peak it had reached in 2007. As this growth occurs, migrant workers with H-2B visas—who are almost exclusively low-wage workers—are being employed in industries in which there is extensive wage theft and lawbreaking by employers.

While the United States needs pathways that allow more migrants to come to the United States and work, the H-2B program is not a model for a fair and safe pathway for them because of its flaws, as numerous reports, investigations, and government audits have proven. The available data on labor standards enforcement show that employers have engaged in mass lawbreaking by stealing nearly $2 billion in wages from all workers employed in the main H-2B industries from 2000 through 2021.

The Biden administration has been increasing the size of the H-2B program while H-2B workers are in a vulnerable situation. Since their immigration status is temporary and precarious and controlled by employers, it is difficult for H-2B workers to come forward and complain when their employers break the law. This report is timely because the Biden administration is currently considering new changes to the H-2B program, with a focus on addressing aspects of the program that may result in the exploitation of workers. The administration has the authority to implement many of the needed reforms through new and updated regulations and agency guidance and should do so immediately.

“President Biden and his administration should send a message to workers and the business community that a major reform of the H-2B program is long overdue and needs to move forward now, more than ever, so that lawbreaking employers will be prohibited from hiring through H-2B, and so migrant workers and U.S. workers in the major H-2B industries will be treated and paid fairly,” said Daniel Costa, EPI director of immigration law and policy research and author of the report.