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The issue with a visa cap

Louisiana Sugarcane Harvest CrewLouisiana's sugarcane industry is unique. It produces a top flight sugar harvest that is the envy of the world but if the the state's mills cannot get the guest workers it needs to make raw sugar from cane juice our 221-year-old industry may be in jeopardy. Read Baton Rouge Business Report's April 11, 2017 on the trouble with the national H2A and H2B guest worker visa program. Story by Annie Ourso.

The issue with a visa cap
by Annie Ourso, Baton Rouge Business Report

Amid all the immigration rhetoric, lawmakers in the nation’s capital have considered measures to cap the nation’s H-2A visa program, which allows for temporary foreign workers in the agriculture sector. On the flip side, Louisiana employers of H-2B visa workers—used for temporary non-agricultural workers—know all too well the struggles of dealing with a capped labor program.

The H-2B program caps its visa allowance at 66,000 visas in the U.S. per year, with 33,000 permitted in the first half of the fiscal year, Oct. 1 to March 31, and 33,000 in the second half, April 1 to Sept. 30.

However, in previous years, H-2B had a returning-worker exemption, which allowed workers from prior years to return without being counted toward the cap. But the exemption expired last year, and lawmakers have yet to extend it. Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Mike Strain says hundreds of thousands of H-2B workers were allowed into the U.S. before the exemption expired.

"It’s going to be problematic,” Strain says. "Hopefully employers get their workers in.” …

…something has to give soon. For the six-month period beginning in April, there were 53,000 H-2B applications sent in for the 33,000 allowed slots, Breaux says.  

Sugar mill operators are particularly worried about the cap because they need H-2B workers at the end of the year for sugar cane harvesting—or grinding—season. Last year, their H-2B workers used the returning-worker exemption, Breaux says. They won’t be able to use it this year unless Congress passes an extension.

Alan Chatman is the assistant general manager at Alma Plantation sugar mill in Lakeland, which has been using the H-2B program for more than 25 years and hires about 40 visa workers for the three-month harvesting season. Because of the cap, the start of harvesting may be delayed at Alma this year.

"Due to nature of crop, we need to start processing sugar cane in mid-September,” Chatman says. "But we will not be able to get H-2B workers in until October because the April cap has already been filled.”

The same scenario played out in 2015 when Alma didn’t get visa workers in on time and had to delay processing by one week, which is precious time in the sugar cane industry.

Baton Rouge Business Report"It definitely impacts growers in our area,” Chatman says. "The further along we get in the year, the closer we get to January, we stand the risk of a freeze, which damages cane.”

Chances are H-2B worker applications will be delayed again this year—or worse, not come at all, he says. The longer sugar cane has to stay in the field, the higher the risk of freeze damage, which would be a loss for both the farmers and the mill.

"There’s a disconnect between these programs and the people they serve,” Chatman says. "The H-2B program is not set up to work for our industry, yet that’s our only avenue to get skilled seasonal workers for the mill. There’s always a cap problem, and this is a time-sensitive business.” READ THE FULL STORY AT BRBR

(Photo credit: The Louisiana sugarcane harvest crew at the Cecil and Sally Ramagos Jr. farm in Iberville Parish, Louisiana. Photo by Sally Ramagos).

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