In a potentially good piece of news for the Alaska seafood processing sector, which is facing an unprecedented labor shortage, the US government on Thursday announced is its making an additional 35,000 H-2B temporary nonagricultural worker visas available for the second half of fiscal year 2022.

These visas will be set aside for US employers seeking to employ additional workers on or after April 1 through Sept. 30.

The supplemental H-2B visa allocation consists of 23,500 visas available to returning workers who received an H-2B visa or were otherwise granted H-2B status during one of the last three fiscal years.

The remaining 11,500 visas, which are exempt from the returning worker requirement, are reserved for nationals of Haiti, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

The issuance of the new visas will help certain Alaska processors who are still awaiting access to foreign workers to help with what is expected to be a record run of sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay, Alaska, this summer.

But it won't solve the broader issue of a growing labor crisis in Alaska's seafood processing sector, Brian Gannon, senior director of Alaska programs and legislative affairs for United Work and Travel, a group that places H2-B visa workers in various seasonal jobs located all around the United States, told IntraFish.

"The key problem in the seafood industry in Alaska continues to be the decline and stagnation of domestic labor participation," he said.

"There has yet again been a seismic shift away from those willing to travel north for short term engagement in Alaska’s fisheries."

The H-2B program permits employers to temporarily hire noncitizens to perform non-agricultural labor or services in the United States. The employment must be for a limited period of time, such as a one-time occurrence, seasonal or intermittent need. 

The visas are routinely used by both the Alaska and Maryland seafood processing industries.

For example, the H-2B nonresident workers generally make up around 40 percent of Alaska processor Peter Pan Seafood's 2,000-person workforce that it needs to run its processing facilities in Alaska during the hectic summer salmon season.

Typically between 370 and 550 H-2B workers are needed annually in each of Maryland’s licensed crab picking houses, according to local media reports from the region.

In January, the government announced the availability of 20,000 additional H-2B temporary non-agricultural worker visas for the first half of fiscal year 2022.

Each fiscal year, the United States grants 66,000 non-agriculture H2-B visas that include workers not only in seafood processing, but landscapers, foodservice workers and others.

There are 33,000 visas available from October to March, and 33,000 for the second half of the year.

No workers

Alaska seafood companies looking to hire thousands of processing workers for the approaching summer salmon season are facing a labor crisis of unprecedented proportions: workers are hard to find, and wages for those that do show up this summer will be higher than ever before.

A labor shortage across the country and rising wages have created a perfect storm this year that could potentially impact processors' ability to supply fish.

The cost of attracting domestic workers to Alaska is going up significantly this year. Alaska's prevailing wage, which companies use as a base wage for new employees, has risen by around 28 percent from last year to $15.85 (€13.84) and more than 50 percent above the state minimum wage of $10.34 (€9.07).

The prevailing wage, which is set by the government, affects companies such as seafood processors that hire foreign workers under the H-2B visa program.

Entry-level processing workers will start at this wage, but the higher wages are also likely to drive up pay for skilled and salaried workers in the plants as well, compounding the pay inflation picture.

The impact of this wage inflation could drive up payrolls by as much as $50 million (€44.2 million) across the Alaska seafood processing sector, one industry source estimates. The economic shock is being spread across processors of salmon and Alaska pollock primarily.

Bristol Bay, which accounts for more than half the world’s sockeye harvest, employed 4,908 processing workers in 2020, according to data from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Non-resident workers accounted for nearly 93 percent of that workforce.

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