May 10, 2022

Proposed legislation could help alleviate labor shortage

The Essential Workers for Economic Advancement Act would bring new recruits to U.S. restaurants.

EWEA could produce a steady stream of workers that would counteract labor challenges.

The restaurant industry continues to face a severe worker shortage, but help could be on the way with the proposed federal Essential Workers for Economic Advancement (EWEA) Act (H.R. 7239). The legislation would create a pathway for foreign workers to come to the United States on non-immigrant visas to fill essential jobs that don’t require a college degree. 

In a recent National Restaurant Association webinar, available on demand, Angelo Amador, executive director of the Restaurant Law Center, laid out how the legislation would produce a steady stream of year-round workers to help alleviate labor challenges that have forced some restaurants to cut their hours of service and have led to supply-chain bottlenecks and inflationary pressure on food prices.

“COVID-19 and the pandemic did something for our industry,” Amador notes during the webinar. “It created a new level of importance and level of respect for our workforce and for the workforce of people without college degrees. Suddenly they were called essential workers.  Individuals realized we need these workers.” The challenge is: How do we staff these positions? The EWEA offers one promising strategy. 

Here are the key elements of the proposed legislation:

  • Match-making system. Employers and prospective employees would apply for an H-2C permit. The EWEA program would then match employers with workers, based on the job position and location. Workers must stay on board for one year. After the year, they can move to another employer who has an H-2C hiring permit.
  • Year-round, renewable visas. Workers would come to the U.S. on a three-year non-immigrant H-2C visa. The visa could be renewed twice, if certain conditions are met, allowing workers to stay up to a total of nine years. In contrast, the current H-2B visa program falls short because it allows for only seasonal and temporary workers, Amador explains. “If you need a worker year-round, sending them home after seven months, eight months, and then having to reapply is just not cost efficient,” he says.
  • Market-driven cap. The program would be initially capped at 65,000 visas per year. That cap could increase up to 85,000 when the economy needs more workers, and decrease down to 45,000, if the economy contracts.
  • Employer obligations to hire from U.S. first. To qualify for an EWEA hiring permit, employers would have to be in an area with an unemployment rate of 7.9% or below. Employers would also need to show that they were unable to find U.S. workers qualified for the job. Factoring in employee turnover, the act would allow employers to be eligible for the program if they demonstrate difficulty keeping someone in a position, resulting in the job being vacant for 60 or more days within the preceding 90-day period. 

Moving forward

The EWEA was introduced in the House this spring by Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-PA). The emphasis now is on garnering support in the House and finding a lead sponsor in the Senate, says Amador, who suggests that restaurateurs reach out to their representatives and senators. “This is not a Republican bill or a Democrat bill,” he emphasizes. “This shouldn't be a partisan issue. This is not about legalization. This is not about the border … this is about workforce and inflation and issues impacting our economy.” 

Watch the National Restaurant Association webinar “EWEA: A Promising Approach to Help Restaurants Recruit and Retain Employees” on demand. Learn more about EWEA here.