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 spent years locked out of the labor market, confined by what she calls the “gilded cage” of her immigration status — one that the pandemic placed her back into.

Ms. Mahajan started working after an Obama administration rule change in 2015 allowed people on spousal visas to hold jobs, and she took a new job in business development at an immigration law firm early in 2021. But processing delays tied to the pandemic caused her work authorization to expire in July, forcing her to take leave.

“It just gets to you emotionally and drains you out,” said Ms. Mahajan, 39, who lives in Scotch Plains, N.J.

Last week brought reprieve, if only temporarily. She received approval documents for her renewed work authorization, enabling her to return to the labor force. But a process that should have taken three months stretched to 10, leaving her sidelined all summer. And because her visa is linked to her husband’s, she will need to reapply for authorization again in December when his visa comes up for renewal.

Hundreds of thousands of foreign workers have gone missing from the labor market as the global coronavirus pandemic drags on, leaving holes in white-collar professions like the one Ms. Mahajan works in and in more service-oriented jobs in beach towns and at ski resorts. Newcomers and applicants for temporary visas were initially limited by policy changes under former President Donald J. Trump, who used a series of executive actions to slow many types of legal immigration. Then pandemic-era travel restrictions and bureaucratic backlogs caused immigration to drop precipitously, threatening a long-term loss of talent and economic potential.

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

Employers consistently complain that they are struggling to hire, and job openings exceed the number of people actively looking for work, even though millions fewer people are working compared with just before the pandemic. The slump in immigration is one of the many reasons for the disconnect. Companies dependent on foreign workers have found that waves of infections and processing delays at consulates are keeping would-be employees in their home countries, or stuck in America but simply unable to work.

“Employers are having to wait a long time to get their petitions approved, and renewals are not being processed in a timely manner,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration lawyer who teaches at Cornell Law School. “It’s going to take a long time for them to work through the backlog.”

Worker inflows had already slowed sharply before the pandemic, the result of a crackdown by the Trump administration that made it harder for foreign workers, refugees and migrant family members to enter the United States. But the pandemic took that decline and accelerated it dramatically: Overall visa issuance dropped by 4.7 million last year.

Many of those visas would have gone to short-term visitors and tourists — people who likely will come back as travel restrictions lift. But hundreds of thousands of the visas would have gone to workers. Without them, some employers have been left struggling.

Guests at Penny Fernald’s inn on Mount Desert Island in Maine had to swing by the front desk to pick up towels this summer. Turndown service was limited, because only one of the four foreign housekeepers Ms. Fernald would employ in a typical summer could make it through a consulate and into the country this year.

Vacationers who wanted a reimagined Waldorf salad at Salt & Steel, a nearby restaurant, needed call ahead for reservations and hope it wasn’t Sunday, when the short-staffed restaurant was closed.

“This was the busiest season Bar Harbor has ever seen, and we turned people away nightly,” said Bobby Will, the chef and co-owner of Salt & Steel.

He usually hires a few foreign workers who perform day jobs for other local businesses then work for him at night. This year, that was basically impossible. He found himself down six of 18 workers. He modified dishes to make them easier to plate — a lobster risotto with roasted chanterelles and hand-placed garnished became a seafood cassoulet — but labor-saving innovations were not enough of a fix. He ultimately had to close on Mondays, too, and he estimates that he missed out on $6,500 to $8,000 in sales per night.

“It’s just been extremely difficult for Bar Harbor,” he said of his town, a summer tourism hot-spot nestled between Frenchman Bay and Acadia National Park.

Many immigrants are missing from the labor market, causing staffing shortages both in white-collar professions and in more service-oriented jobs in vacation spots like Old Orchard Beach, Maine.Credit…Tristan Spinski for The New York Times

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

But some visa categories that weren’t deemed high priority, including many temporary work authorizations, have been waiting long months for approval. Travel limitations tied to the pandemic have kept other foreign workers at home.

The State Department reported that as of September, nearly half a million people remained in its immigrant visa backlog, compared with roughly 61,000 on average in 2019.

It is not clear what the 2020 drop in immigration and the slow crawl back to normalcy will mean for the country’s labor pool going forward. The Goldman Sachs estimate that the U.S. is short 700,000 foreign workers was based on a rough methodology. The Congressional Budget Office estimated late last year that 2.5 million fewer people would immigrate in the 2020s than it had estimated before the pandemic. Immigration tends to build on itself as legal permanent residents bring in family members, so this decade’s decline is expected to lead to another 840,000 fewer immigrants between 2031 and 2040.

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

Either number amounts to a relatively small sliver of the American work force, which is today 161 million people strong. But from an economic perspective — and from the viewpoint of many American businesses — the timing could hardly be worse. America’s population is aging, and fertility rates have been declining. Work force growth in recent years has been heavily driven by immigrants and their children. Fewer immigrants means fewer future workers.

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

The pandemic immigration slump isn’t the cause of that economic sclerosis, but it could cause the condition to progress faster.

While millions of Americans remain out of work and potentially available for jobs, employers say hiring has been complicated by pandemic aftershocks. Some households lack child care or are afraid of virus resurgence. Others are rethinking careers in backbreaking industries after a perspective-shifting collective public health trauma. Often immigrants work jobs that struggle to attract native workers.

Some companies are reluctant to pay enough to attract locals. Ms. Fernald did receive some applications for housekeeping positions, but she pays $16.50 per hour and the applicants had hoped for $20 to $23.

Even for those who were willing to pay what would-be laborers demand — Mr. Will paid cooks $22 per hour and guaranteed 10 hours a week in overtime — it was difficult to make up for missing local exchange student workers and temporary seasonal employees from abroad. He’s hoping hiring will be easier in 2022.

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

Ms. Mahajan in New Jersey offered a glint of hope that some sort of normalcy could return, but also apprehension that it will not.

“I couldn’t believe it — I was like, ‘Wow,’” she said of the moment she received her approval. But the relief may be short-lived since her visa is inextricably linked to her husband’s lapsing one.

“Even before summer, I could be back in the same situation,” she said. “This is like an infinite rut.”

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