Senior Writer and Editor, Strategic Communications, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
August 28, 2023
Mike Zaffaroni, owner and president of the Liberty Landscape Supply, is ready to expand his small business, but the persistent worker shortage is stopping those plans cold.
“The labor shortage has impacted our business more significantly than any other single factor in the entire 16 years that I've been in business,” says Zaffaroni. “It impacts our ability to grow at the rate that we want to grow.”
The small business, based in Jacksonville, Florida, depends heavily on foreign national workers here on temporary work visas—and there simply aren’t enough to fulfill business demand.
“There’s not nearly enough visas available every year for all of the businesses that are looking for workers,” Zaffaroni says. “There’s no level of predictability as to whether or not we’re going to get those visas and the associated workers in the future.”
Shortage of temporary worker visas
The U.S. government offers hundreds of thousands of temporary worker visas annually, and that may sound like a lot. But with a workforce shortage measured in the millions, those visas are nowhere near enough to meet demand. In fact, the U.S. Chamber’s America Works Data Center estimates that if every unemployed person in the country found a job, we would still have 4 million open jobs.
The problems are particularly acute for folks like Zaffaroni because he needs specific, seasonal workers that enter the U.S. on H-2B visas. The quota for H-2B visas rests at a paltry 66,000 per year, and those statutory limits haven’t changed since they were established in 1990.
In the fiscal year 2022, there were four H-2B visa business applicants for every visa provided for under the cap. Even with the temporary cap relief measures enacted by Congress, less than half of all H-2B requests were filled last year.
This millions-of-workers shortage, combined with the outdated H-2B quota, means that employers like Zaffaroni have to enter a lottery for temporary H-2B workers to see if they can adequately supplement their existing workforce. He says each year is a nerve-wracking process to see if his company will be awarded enough visas to get the workers they need.
“It’s like sitting on the edge of your seat at a football game where there’s 30 seconds left and your team’s got to drive 75 yards down the field to score a touchdown,” Zaffaroni says. “It’s a months-long process and you don’t really find out whether or not you’re going to get the visas that you need until a few weeks, or a month, before the workers are supposed to show up for work.”
He recently received an order from the city of Jacksonville to plant “a bunch of trees.” He had to “adjust, predict, cross his fingers, hope, and pray” that he would get enough workers through the lottery to fulfill the obligations of the contract.
Zaffaroni says it’s not easy to find U.S.-based workers for his landscape business. He needs “physical human beings” to dig holes, help customers load their cars, drive tractors, and move pallets of sod.
“If those workers were U.S. citizens, that would be great,” Zaffaroni says. “But if those workers aren’t available, if they literally don’t show up or do a level of work that’s unsatisfactory, I need to find them elsewhere.”
Legal immigration reform would help
Zaffaroni says one simple solution that could be part of a larger legal immigration reform package is increasing the annual caps on H-2B visa issuance, as well as raising the annual quotas on other temporary worker programs.
“These visa programs can be dialed up and down based on need. Right now, we've got a need for workers and the availability is just not there,” Zaffaroni says. “This is not a political issue—Republican, Democrat, straight down the middle—we’re all in need of the same thing.”
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He adds that immigration reform, if it’s done right, would help get his company’s growth plans back on track.
“My hope is that if the right people in Congress are listening, they will increase these visa caps and allow small businesses like mine to bring in more workers with a greater degree of certainty, so that we can continue to grow and compete,” Zaffaroni says.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce—together with over 440 business associations from all 50 states—launched the LIBERTY Campaign to secure our borders and modernize our antiquated, broken legal immigration system.
These issues can only be addressed with bipartisan Congressional action, and the LIBERTY Campaign is committed to working with all members of Congress to achieve comprehensive immigration reform.
Learn more about the LIBERTY Campaign.