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Sen. John Thune

Thune seeks more guest workers for SD

RAPID CITY, S.D. -- Legislation from U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., would allow more guest workers into South Dakota and other states with low unemployment rates.

Earlier this month, Thune reintroduced his Prioritizing Help to Businesses Act, after it failed to advance through the previous session of Congress. The bill — which so far has no cosponsors — would allow up to 2,500 additional guest workers per year into states that have unemployment rates of 3.5 percent or less.

Specifically, the bill addresses guest workers in the H-2B visa program, which allows foreigners into the United States to fill seasonal, non-agricultural jobs when U.S. employers can’t find enough help in the local workforce.

“With a high volume of seasonal workers who come to South Dakota during the busy tourist season, the H-2B program is especially important to our state,” Thune said in a news release.

The H-2B program is controversial. Critics claim it allows employers to pay lower wages to foreigners for jobs that would otherwise go to Americans at higher rates of pay, while defenders say H-2B visas are a lifeline for businesses in areas where seasonal workers are in short supply.

Partly because of the program’s controversial nature, the total number of H-2B workers admitted nationwide has been capped by law at 66,000 per fiscal year since 1990, although the federal government has often allowed the cap to be exceeded. Most recently, with authorization from Congress, the Trump administration allowed 15,000 additional H-2B workers into the country during the 2018 fiscal year.

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., who has advocated for reforms to help H-2B employers in South Dakota, said the congressional authorization allowed the Trump administration to increase visas by up to 69,000 for 2018, but the administration chose the lower number.

"While we welcomed the increase, it was too little, too late for our state’s businesses who need workers for the busy summer tourism and construction seasons," Rounds wrote in his most recent weekly column. "A long-term solution is necessary."

Rounds said he recently joined a bipartisan group of senators to send a letter to congressional leadership urging them to provide a long-term solution for the H-2B visa program in any government funding bill agreed upon to end the partial government shutdown.

In email correspondence with the Journal regarding the Thune legislation, Rounds' spokeswoman said Rounds supports the intention of the legislation, but added that Thune did not solicit cosponsors on the bill this year or last year.

Some employers who utilize the H-2B program — including some in the Black Hills — have complained about the year-to-year uncertainty in visa numbers and have lobbied for a higher cap. Nationwide, employers sought 97,000 H-2B workers for the second half of the 2019 fiscal year, and the high demand caused the Department of Labor’s online application system to crash.

Under the terms of Thune’s bill, the overall national cap on H-2B visa numbers would not be lifted, but states with 3.5-percent unemployment or less could receive cap exemptions for up to 2,500 extra visas annually (South Dakota's current unemployment rate is about 3 percent). Thune’s office has estimated the bill would grow the number of H-2B visas issued nationwide to about 102,000.

Thune’s office said South Dakota received 1,252 H-2B visa workers during the 2017 fiscal year. The most recent data available from the Department of Labor show that South Dakota employers were awarded 1,414 H-2B workers in 2016, 1,183 in 2015, 1,019 in 2014, 994 in 2013, 974 in 2012 and 1,300 in 2011.

About one-third of the H-2B workers in South Dakota during the 2016 fiscal year were cement masons and concrete finishers. The rest were a mix of maids and housekeeping cleaners, landscaping and groundskeeping workers, construction laborers, and food preparers.

Wages for H-2B jobs in South Dakota during 2016 ranged from $9.46 per hour for some waiters and waitresses to $23.69 an hour for some cement masons and concrete finishers.