WASHINGTON, D.C. - On the floor of the U.S. Senate today, Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) introduced her amendment to the immigration bill to enact a three-year extension of a crucial provision from her "Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act," which was signed into law by President Bush in May 2005.
"Small businesses across this country count on the H2B program to keep their businesses afloat. We all know how important our seasonal industries are to our state economies and local communities," said Senator Mikulski. "Every member of Senate who has heard from their constituents - whether they are seafood processors, landscapers, resorts, timber companies, fisheries, pool companies or carnivals - knows the need for this H2B program and the need for it to continue."
The "Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act" made significant changes to the federal H2B (non-skilled seasonal worker) visa program that resulted in saving thousands of small businesses around the country. Among the changes, it exempted returning seasonal workers from counting against the national cap of 66,000 people, created new anti-fraud provisions and ensured a fair allocation of H2B visas among spring and summer employees. The cap exemption, which provided significant relief to Maryland's crab industry that often hires the same dependable workers every year, is set to expire on September 30, 2006.
Senator Mikulski's statement as prepared follows:
"I rise along with my distinguished colleague from Virginia, Senator Warner, to offer an amendment needed by small and seasonal businesses across the nation.
*** Protects our borders by rewarding immigrants and employers who play by the rules: workers who come here and return to their families when they are finished with their job would get to come back to this country for the next season.
*** Protects American workers by requiring employers to recruit American workers before hiring immigrant workers and by making sure small businesses can continue to operate to pay their U.S. workers 12 months out of the year.
*** Keeps small and seasonal businesses open by guaranteeing the labor supply small businesses need during their peak seasons when they can't find American workers to take the jobs
"It does not raise the cap. It allows employers to rehire good guy workers - workers who have played by the rules and returned home after the work was done - for another 3 years and not count against the annual cap of 66,000. It provides a helping hand to businesses by letting them apply for workers they have already trained to come back again and not count against the cap. And it only applies to those who have already successfully participated in the H2B Visa Program. These workers have received a visa and have returned home to their families after their employment with a U.S. company.
"The H2B program has kept small and seasonal businesses afloat when they face seasonal worker shortages that many coastal and resort states have been dealing with over the past few years.
"Small businesses across this country count on the H2B visa program to keep their businesses afloat. When they cannot find local workers to fill their seasonal needs, they can then turn the H2B program. Without being able to get the seasonal workers they need, these businesses would not survive.
"These businesses try to hire American workers - they would love to hire American workers. In fact, the H2B program requires these businesses to prove that they have vigorously tried to recruit American workers. They have to advertise for American workers and give American workers a chance to apply. These businesses have to prove to the Department of Labor that there are no American workers available. Only then are they allowed to fill their vacancies with seasonal workers.
"The workers these businesses bring in participate in the H2B program year after year. They often work for the same companies. Yet, they cannot and do not stay in the U.S. They play by the rules and return to their home countries, to their families. The U.S. employer must go through the whole visa process again the next year to get them back. That means an employer must prove again to the Department of Labor that they cannot get U.S. workers. The program also requires that the employers pay these workers the prevailing industry wage.
"Every state uses H2B workers - ski resorts out West and in the Northeast, quarries in Colorado, landscapers who hire most of their workers in spring and summer, shrimpers in Texas and Louisiana and of course the seafood industry on both coasts.
"Being able to hire seasonal workers is critical to the state of Maryland. We have a lot of summer seasonal businesses in Maryland, on the Eastern Shore, in Ocean City or working the Chesapeake Bay. Many of our businesses use the program year after year. First, they hire all the American workers they can find. But they need additional help to meet seasonal demands. Without this program they can't meet their needs and many will be forced to limit services, lay-off permanent U.S. workers or, worse yet, close their doors.
"These are family businesses and small businesses in Maryland. If the business suffers, the whole community suffers. Take, for example, J. M. Clayton - what they do is a way of life. It started over a century ago and was run by the great grandsons of the founder, J.M. Clayton, working the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. They supplied crabs, crabmeat and other seafood - including Maryland's famous oysters - to restaurants, markets, and wholesalers all over the nation. It is the oldest working crab processing plant in the world. By employing 65 H2B workers, the company can retain over 30 fulltime American workers.
"But it's not just seafood companies that have a long history on the Eastern Shore. It's also S.E.W. Friel Cannery, which began its business over 100 years ago. Friel's is the last corn cannery left out of 300. Ten years ago, when the cannery could not find local workers, it turned to the new H2B visa program. And since then, many workers come each season and then go home after. This help each year not only allowed the company to maintain its American workforce, but it has paved the way for local workers to return to the cannery, which now employs 75 fulltime and 190 seasonal workers, along with 70 farmers and additional suppliers.
"Some of you may ask, 'why do we need this extension?' Since the Chairman's bill has a temporary guest worker program, we need to make sure we do not forget the needs of small and seasonal businesses in this immigration debate. I welcome the guest worker program that is before the Senate. Once the program is up and running, it will help the H2B program. But that is going to take time. We need to make sure that there is no interruption so that companies can meet their hiring needs. For some of these small businesses a missed season doesn't just mean a loss of profit, it means a loss of family business because these businesses won't be back in business if they miss a season. Again this year the cap has been reached early. The first half of the cap - 33,000 - was reached less than three months after employers could begin applying. These businesses relied on the exemption of returning workers to fill vacancies that were open after trying to recruit American workers.
"We know how important it is to protect our borders, protect American workers and make sure small and seasonal businesses continue to operate. I don't need to tell you how important our seasonal industries are to our state economies and our local communities. My amendment does all of this.
"Every member of the Senate who has heard from their constituents - whether they are seafood processors, landscapers, resorts, timber companies, fisheries, pool companies or carnivals - knows the need for this H2B program and the need for it to continue. I urge my colleagues to join this effort, support the Mikulski-Warner amendment to 'Save our Small and Seasonal Businesses' today."