Missing foreign workers add to hiring challenges

Neha Mahajan was a television journalist in India before her husband’s job moved her family to the United States in 2008. She has spent ...


Neha Mahajan was a television journalist in India before her husband’s job moved her family to the United States in 2008. She has spent years locked out of the labor market, confined by what she calls ” golden cage ”of her immigration status – a status that the pandemic has brought back to her.

Ms. Mahajan started working after an Obama administration rule change in 2015 allowed people with spousal visas to take up employment, and she accepted a new business development job at an immigration law firm in early 2021. But the delays pandemic-related treatments caused his work permit to expire in July, forcing him to take leave.

“It touches you emotionally and wears you out,” said Ms. Mahajan, 39, who lives in Scotch Plains, NJ.

Last week brought a reprieve, if only temporarily. She received approval documents for her renewed work authorization, allowing her to re-enter the labor market. But a process that should have taken three months spread to 10, leaving her on the sidelines all summer. And since her visa is linked to that of her husband, she will have to reapply for authorization in December when her visa is renewed.

Hundreds of thousands of foreign workers have disappeared from the workforce as the global coronavirus pandemic continues, leaving holes in white-collar occupations like the one Ms. Mahajan works in and more service-oriented jobs in the seaside towns and ski resorts. Newcomers and temporary visa applicants were initially limited by policy changes under former President Donald J. Trump, who used a executive action series slow down many types of legal immigration. Then, pandemic-era travel restrictions and bureaucratic backlogs led to a sharp drop in immigration, threatening a long-term loss of talent and economic potential.

Some of these missing potential employees will likely come to work as travel restrictions are lifted and visa processing backlogs are cleared, as Ms. Mahajan’s example suggests. But recent immigration lost due to the pandemic will likely leave a permanent hole. Goldman Sachs estimated in research this month that the economy is short of 700,000 temporary visa holders and permanent immigrant workers, and that perhaps 300,000 of those people would never come to the United States to work.

Employers constantly complain that they have difficulty hiring and job offers exceed the number of people actively looking for work, even though millions less are working compared to just before the pandemic. The fall in immigration is one of the many reasons for the disconnection. Businesses dependent on foreign workers have found waves of infections and processing delays at consulates keeping potential employees in their home countries, or stranded in America but simply unable to work.

“Employers have to wait a long time for their applications to be approved and renewals are not processed in a timely manner,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration attorney who teaches at Cornell Law School. “It will take a long time for them to get over the backlog. “

Inflows of workers had already slowed sharply before the pandemic, the result of a Trump administration crackdown that made entry into the United States more difficult for foreign workers, refugees and migrant family members. But the pandemic took that decline and accelerated it dramatically: overall visa issuance declined by 4.7 million Last year.

Many of those visas would have gone to visitors and short-term tourists – people who will likely return as travel restrictions are lifted. But hundreds of thousands of visas would have gone to workers. Without them, some employers found themselves in difficulty.

Guests at Penny Fernald’s Inn on Mount Desert Island in Maine had to go through the front desk to pick up towels this summer. Nightly turndown service was limited, as only one of the four foreign housekeepers Ms Fernald would employ in a typical summer could go through a consulate and enter the country this year.

Vacationers who wanted a reinvented Waldorf salad at Salt & Steel, a nearby restaurant, had to call ahead to reserve and hope it wasn’t Sunday when the small-staff restaurant was closed.

“It was the busiest season Bar Harbor has ever seen, and we were turning people down every night,” said Bobby Will, chef and co-owner of Salt & Steel.

He usually hires a few foreign workers who do daytime work for other local businesses and then work for him at night. This year it was practically impossible. It ended up down six of the 18 workers. He tweaked the dishes to make them easier to prepare – a hand-garnished, roasted chanterelle lobster risotto became a seafood cassoulet – but labor-saving innovations weren’t enough. He eventually had to shut down on Monday as well, and he estimates he missed $ 6,500 to $ 8,000 in sales per night.

“It’s been extremely difficult for Bar Harbor,” he said of his city, a summer tourism hotspot tucked between Frenchman Bay and Acadia National Park.

Biden administration lifted Trump-era pandemic ban on legal immigration in February, and the number of foreign nationals entering the United States on visas has rebounded this year. Monthly data show a nascent but incomplete rebound.

But some visa categories that were not considered high priority, including many temporary work permits, have been awaiting approval for many months. Travel limitations linked to the pandemic have kept other foreign workers at home.

The The State Department reported that in September, nearly half a million people remained in the immigrant visa backlog, up from about 61,000 on average in 2019.

It is unclear what the decline in immigration in 2020 and the slow return to normalcy will mean for the country’s labor pool in the future. Goldman Sachs’ estimate that the United States lacks 700,000 foreign workers was based on rough methodology. The Estimated Congressional Budget Office by the end of last year, 2.5 million fewer people would immigrate in the 2020s than they had estimated before the pandemic. Immigration tends to grow on its own as legal permanent residents bring in family members, so this decade’s decline is expected to result in 840,000 fewer immigrants between 2031 and 2040.

The “reduction is happening in part because of travel restrictions and reduced visa processing capacities linked to the pandemic,” the office wrote in its September 2020 long-term budget outlook.

Either number represents a relatively small fraction of the U.S. workforce, which today is 161 million strong people. But from an economic standpoint – and from the standpoint of many American companies – the timing could hardly be worse. America’s population is aging and fertility rates are declining. The growth of the workforce in recent years has been strongly trained by immigrants and their children. Fewer immigrants mean fewer future workers.

Unless companies figure out how to produce more with fewer people, a future in which the working-age nation the population is growing more slowly means the economy is likely to have less room for expansion.

The pandemic migration crisis is not the cause of this economic sclerosis, but it could accelerate the progression of the disease.

As millions of Americans remain out of work and potentially available for work, employers say hiring has been complicated by aftershocks of the pandemic. Some households lack childcare services or fear a resurgence of the virus. Others are rethinking careers in grueling industries after a collective public health trauma that changed perspective. Often, immigrants are in jobs that have difficulty attracting native workers.

Some businesses are reluctant to pay enough to attract locals. Ms. Fernald has received applications for housekeeping positions, but she pays $ 16.50 an hour and applicants had hoped for $ 20 to $ 23.

Even for those who were willing to pay what future workers demand – Mr. Will paid the cooks $ 22 an hour and guaranteed 10 hours a week of overtime – it was difficult to make up for the lack of local exchange students. and temporary seasonal employees from abroad. . He hopes hiring will be easier in 2022.

“Honestly, I don’t know what to expect,” he said.

Ms Mahajan in New Jersey offered a glimmer of hope that some sort of normalcy might return, but also apprehension that it won’t.

“I couldn’t believe it – I was like ‘Wow’,” she said of when she got his approval. But the relief may be short-lived as her visa is inextricably linked to her expiring husband’s.

“Even before the summer, I might be back in the same situation,” she said. “It’s like an endless rut.”

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