W Visa: Too Little, Too Late

Now that big business and big labor has supposedly struck a deal to allow the nation’s immigration reform efforts to move forward, it’s time to take a look at what’s in the agreement.

While the deal still must be signed off on by most of the Senators in the original Gang of Eight, apparently it has resolved differences over wages for new low-skilled workers and which industries would be included.

Under the agreement, a new “W” visa program would go into effect beginning April 1, 2015 to fill low-skilled jobs in the construction, hospitality, nursing and other industries.  In year one, 20,000 workers would be allowed in; in year two, 35,000; in year three, 55,000; and in year four, 75,000. Thereafter, that number would fluctuate depending on employment rates, job openings, employer demand and data collected by a new federal agency charged with monitoring the labor market.  Ultimately, the program would be capped at 200,000 workers a year.  However, the construction industry would be capped at 15,000 visas per year and certain types of more skilled jobs, like crane operators and electricians, would excluded altogether from the program.  Also, one third of all visas available in any given year would go to businesses with fewer than 25 employees.

A “safety valve” would allow employers to exceed the cap if they can show need and pay premium wages, but any additional workers brought in would be subtracted from the following year’s cap.  Workers could move from employer to employer and would be able to petition for permanent residence and ultimately seek U.S. citizenship.  Approval of the visa would be subject to employer attestation, and Department of Labor approval, that it will pay the prevailing wage for that industry in that particular location.

My issue is not with the W visa itself, but rather its restrictive parameters.  The United States has needed a low-skilled temporary worker visa program for decades.  We’ve limped along with the H-2B seasonal program, trying to fit full-time jobs into the restrictive 10 month or less window.  In the meantime, dairy farms, the trucking industry, hotels and restaurants and cleaning companies have all suffered in various ways due to lack of workers.  America needed this program approved in the early 1990s.  We have hampered the potential of these industries for over 20 years because labor and business couldn’t agree to get this done.  Apparently, election results and the will of the people have made this the right time to compromise.

While I’m grateful that the W visa is included in the Immigration Reform discussion, it appears to be too little, too late.   Waiting until 2015 to begin the program, with 20,000 visas for year one doesn’t help much.  That number could be consumed by a portion of the restaurant industry in this country alone.  I’m sure the increase in numbers over a period of years is done to help some swallow what they perceive to be the bitter pill of allowing more immigrants into our workforce.  But if it takes until 2020, or later, to fulfill the needs of American businesses, that’s too long to wait.

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