As the world approaches the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s no dispute that its effects have been wide-reaching. The United States continues to experience a labor shortage, spurring debate as to how immigrant labor contributes to this shortage.
Labor Shortage in the United States
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”), 11 million jobs in the United States are currently unfilled, exceeding the expectations of economists. An increase in hospitality jobs, including hotel and food service positions, is partly responsible for the increase. Despite the increase in job openings, the number of new hires has remained steady at approximately 6.5 million.
Given these staggering statistics, the question becomes, what is causing this labor shortage and how can it best be addressed? According to a recent article by CNN, a number of factors contribute to the shortage, including an increase in the number of Americans choosing to retire and a lack of available and affordable childcare in the United States.
Another explanation for the labor shortage is the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fearing exposure to COVID-19 or its variants, many Americans who otherwise would return to the workforce cannot or will not do so. It goes without saying that the current labor shortage is influenced by a wide array of factors, including federal unemployment insurance and vaccine-related controversies. However, an often-overlooked factor is the lack of foreign workers able to enter and work in the United States.
Impact in Pennsylvania
The countrywide data is reflected here in Pennsylvania. Western Pennsylvania still has not reached pre-pandemic employment levels, and Gov. Wolf recently signed an executive order aiming to ensure workplace safety in the midst of the pandemic. However, some are noting that American immigration policy is an overlooked contributor to the ongoing labor shortage.
A recent NPR article told the story of Jagdeep Nayyar, owner and chef at My Taste of India, a popular roadside destination for truckers travelling through Central Pennsylvania on I-81. Offering authentic Indian cuisine, Mr. Nayyar caters primarily to truckers with roots in the Northwest Indian state of Punjab. In fact, Punjabis have become an integral part of the trucking industry. According to Raman Singh Dhilllon, the head of the North American Punjabi Trucking Association, as many as one-fifth of truckers hail from the region. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic slowed American immigration, fewer and fewer Punjabis have been able to enter the United States and fill these trucking positions.
Biden Administration Expands Guest Worker Visas to Address Labor Shortage
The impact of foreign workers on the United States economy recently gained attention from the White House, which, on Dec. 20, 2021, announced its intention to make an additional 20,000 seasonal guest-worker visas available for the winter season. This follows a similar increase of seasonal visas last summer. The H-2B visas permit employers to sponsor foreign workers to enter the United States for temporary non-agricultural positions. It remains to be seen what effect this increase in seasonal workers will have on the labor shortage as a whole.
While the factors contributing to the labor shortage are nuanced and numerous, the contributions of foreign workers to the U.S. economy cannot be overlooked.