Breaking down the mission critical H-2B worker process
By Brock Huffstutler
January 24, 2024
Equipment and event rental members have come to rely on the H-2B visa program to supplement their U.S. workforce needs. In fact, securing workers through the program is mission critical for many rental operators during peak season.
The program, which is overseen by the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor, extends visa classifications to noncitizens coming to the U.S. to temporarily perform nonagricultural service or labor.
Trenton, N.J.-based L & A Tent Rentals has secured several workers through the H-2B visa program in recent years. Rental Management spoke with Kyle Richardson, L & A Tent Rentals’ operations manager, to better understand his company’s processes surrounding the H-2B framework and learn what advice he has for rental operators interested in utilizing the program. An edited version of that conversation follows.
Rental Management: How long has your company utilized the H-2B visa program, and what prompted you to pursue it as a workforce development resource?
Kyle Richardson: Our first attempt was in 2016 or 2017. That was when we started to see fewer local employees applying for our seasonal jobs. We were not successful. In 2021 we applied again and we’ve used it for the past three seasons successfully.
Rental Management: Can you describe your process of applying for H-2B workers — where and when do you start?
Richardson: You start the planning process almost a year out for the following season. Once my [H-2B] guys show up in the spring, I’m starting to process for the following year already. The application goes in on Jan. 1, so from Dec. 1 to Jan. 1 I’m in contact almost every day with the company we use, making sure all our i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed and signing paperwork. It gets easier the longer you do it because you can kind of copy and paste things and just change dates, but our first year was a full year of filling out all these documents, creating job descriptions and things like that.
Rental Management: Do you work with a third-party provider to develop your H-2B application paperwork for the government?
Richardson: A company out of upstate New York handles 98 percent of the work for us. They know the verbiage, what the government wants to see and doesn’t want to see, the ins and outs of the system and how to navigate the process. We tried to do it ourselves and it did not go well, so my No. 1 piece of advice is to hire someone to handle it. But make sure you find a company that handles the process from door to door, from the initial paperwork all the way through the employee getting to your place of business, including the travel. I learned that the hard way.
Rental Management: What eligibility factors are involved in qualifying a business for H-2B workers?
Richardson: You have to prove that you truly are a seasonal business. You provide your income statements to show that there is a dip in work for your slower months, which, for this industry, is pretty easy to do. You also have to show that there is a drastic change in your full-time employees’ hours when your revenue is down and prove that you cannot find U.S. workers after posting ads.
Rental Management: There is a cap each year on the number of H-2B workers. Do you apply and then just wait and hope you receive your allotment?
Richardson: You put your application in and [the government] batches them into groups, like A through G. If you’re Group A, you are 99 percent guaranteed that you’ll get the visas you applied for. If you are Group G, you’re not going to get them. It’s completely lottery based; they’re just pulling names out of hats.
Rental Management: Do you have any say in who comes to your company via the program, such as returning workers you have employed previously?
Richardson: You have 100 percent say; you get to put the name on the visa. Currently, I just call the workers I’ve had for three years and say, “I need two extra guys this year,” and they go and find them for me. That has worked out well for us, but you can pick a country and then hire a recruiting firm to find you employees from that country.
Rental Management: Are you required to meet certain pay parameters for these workers?
Richardson: The government does a census, figures out what the average salary is for a position and tells you what your rate is going to be for that year. You can pay the worker more; you just can’t pay them less. The bad thing is that you have to make sure every full-time employee in your company makes more money than the H-2B employees. So, if the census comes back $3 more than what you were paying the H-2B worker last year, well, that means every employee has to get a raise as well.
Rental Management: How many workers do you get each year, and for how long do you typically have them?
Richardson: We’ve had the same group of 11 for the last three years, and this year we are applying for 13. We apply for them to be here from April 1 to Dec. 1, and typically they get here by May 1.
Rental Management: How has the quality of work been with your H-2B workforce?
Richardson: Unmatched. The morale these guys bring to the team is incomparable. They’re so happy to be here, to have a job and to be able to do much better for their family than they could have in their country. They take a lot of pride in their work.
Rental Management: How well do the migrant workers fit into the overall culture of your business?
Richardson: My full-time guys love them. They are now just part of the family. It’s like they’re going on a long vacation when they leave for the winter. It is hard to say, “I’ll see you next year,” when you don’t really know if you’re going to see them next year. It’s out of my hands.
Rental Management: In your experience, what have been the top advantages of utilizing the H-2B visa program?
Richardson: The ability to know we are going to have the staff needed to complete all the work we have booked. It takes the unknown out of it for us. And the quality of the labor is significantly better than anything we were finding locally — and we weren’t finding many people locally as it was. When it’s crunch time, these guys are right there next to us getting their job done, which has really been a game changer for us.
Rental Management: If there was anything you could change about the program, what might that be?
Richardson: Bring back the returning worker exemption [a provision that would exempt certain workers from the annual numerical limit on H-2B visas].
Rental Management: You recommended that companies use a third-party service to help them through the complex H-2B process. Do you have any other insight for those who are new to the process?
Richardson: These workers have nothing, so we house them and all that. For their first year, it’s like I’m their father. In the beginning the struggle is a little harder while they’re getting acclimated. That was something I didn’t even consider when we started doing this. It was kind of a rude awakening when they would call me at 5:00 on a Saturday saying, “Where can we get food? Can you take us?” You just have to work through that. It does get easier.
Rental Management: Overall, how vital would you say the H-2B visa program is to your company?
Richardson: If I don’t get my employees, it could completely change the business. We rely heavily on this as our source of labor. We might lean on it too much, but when you have no other option and your back is against the wall, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.