AHC webinar: In search of a better H2B visa program

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: Aug. 22, 2017

The challenges of not only finding backstretch workers but dealing with the rigorous H2B visa system were outlined Aug. 21 during one in a series of American Horse Council webinars—“Cantering Toward a Worker Shortage?”—as were several proposals or ideas on ways to satisfy its workforce needs.

A shortage of workers amid uncertainty tied to disruptions in national immigration policies has been well-documented this year. The recent freeing up of additional H2B visas by the administration of President Donald Trump has been called too little, too late.

“I’m glad we’re having these forums,” said trainer Dale Romans, who employs 77 people. There is a big difference between legal and illegal immigrants. I don’t know what we would do without our immigrant workforce. They’re good quality people here to provide for their families at home.”

Romans said federal officials need a much better understanding of how the Thoroughbred industry works. H2B visas are temporary and must be reapplied for each cycle.

“The racing industry uses a small percentage of the (66,000) cap on H2B visas,” Romans said. “The problem I see is in interpretation of H2B law and how an administration interprets the law. We’re a year-round business.”

Lisa Galliath of LLG Attorney at Law in California said securing H2B visas is both time-consuming and expensive with a lot of redundancy. She also agreed with Romans that mandatory efforts to find American workers for backstretch jobs often result in little or no response.

“Most of the time no one applies for the job, at least in my experience,” Galliath said. “It’s quite an involved process, and you have to go through the same process every year to have a worker for a maximum of nine months. I do think I could come up with a better program than this, but this is what we’ve got.”

Galliath, who focuses on equestrian clients, said she handles mostly P visas, which offer temporary employment to alien athletes, artists and entertainers, as well as their spouses and children. She said a polo player, for instance, can apply for visas for support personnel, and jockeys can “sponsor” others in the visa program as long as they meet support personnel requirements.

Trainers and exercise riders, however, don’t qualify for such visas because they’re not athletes. “You would think it’s a possible option (to the problem), but it’s almost impossible (to get done),” Galliath said.

Glen Krebs of Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs in Kentucky said there also are timing issues with H2B visas in that an employer can’t file for them more than 90 days or less than 75 days of need. Visas become available the first day of April and October, and it may only take days before all of the ones available are gone.

Krebs noted H2A visas for agriculture workers—breeding farm employees, for example—can be applied for by “associations” or even state departments of agriculture. There is no numerical limit on the number of H2A visas available, he said, but employers must provide suitable housing, something not required under a H2B visa.

Bryan Brendle, Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs for the AHC, said the organization continues to advocate for changes that would improve the visa process. He said there are a few legislative vehicles in Congress designed to bring relief, including a regular appropriations process that can give flexibility to the H2B visa cap as well as legislation in both houses that would expand exemptions for immigrant workers who already have been vetted and have worked in the United States.

“I think the system can work if we stop demonizing the immigrant worker and use a sensible approach (to hiring them),” Romans said. “A lot of people don’t realize how labor intensive this process is.”

“We need a good visa program for good foreign workers,” Galliath said. “It can use a lot of improvement.”

(Photo courtesy of NYTHA)