Leaders of Minnesota’s major business groups said a national ban on hiring foreign workers will do little to help the U.S. recover from financial problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Those reactions came as President Donald Trump ordered the country to stop issuing visas for many foreign workers until Dec. 31. Trump said the temporary ban will spur hiring of Americans during a period of high unemployment.
With the country’s jobless rate roughly four times what it was before the COVID-19 crisis hit, policymakers and businesses are looking for ways to jump start the economy.
“Under ordinary circumstances, properly administered temporary worker programs can provide benefits to the economy,” the president said in an executive order. “But under the extraordinary circumstances of the economic contraction resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak, certain nonimmigrant visa programs authorizing such employment pose an unusual threat to the employment of American workers.”
Business interests in Minnesota and across the country disagreed and promised to push back, lobbying Congress and the White House.
“We signed on with a bunch of Minnesota companies voicing our opposition to what the president has done,” said Shaye Mandle, CEO of Medical Alley, a trade group representing hundreds of businesses in Minnesota’s med-tech sector. “We oppose this, especially H1B visas. Those are engineering and science. The U.S. just doesn’t produce enough of those people to fill those jobs.”
At the top end of the scale, temporary H1B visas for highly skilled foreign workers offer intellectual and scientific expertise that makes U.S. companies more competitive in the world economy, said Charlie Weaver, who directs the Minnesota Business Partnership, a collective of the state’s top chief executives.
Institutions such as the Mayo Clinic depend on such talent to develop cures and treatments, Weaver said.
“High-tech companies have been complaining about this,” said University of Minnesota economist Tim Kehoe. “Some firms that need highly skilled workers won’t be able to get them.”
Scott Whitaker, president and CEO of AdvaMed, which represents U.S. med-tech companies, said in a statement that the group believes “this policy will have the opposite of its intended effect and [we] hope the administration will reconsider it.”
At the middle and bottom of the scale, seasonal workers from other countries fill gaps in the employee pool that will continue to exist despite the president’s order, added Doug Loon, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce president.
While Trump signaled that he was considering a temporary ban on temporary workers, his “timing seems extraordinarily bad,” Weaver said. “Our companies in Minnesota compete around the world. They need the best talent they can get” as they try to recover.
Kehoe predicted that sluggish movement of workers caused by the virus has forced companies to adjust.
Loon said a lack of seasonal foreign workers could hurt the state’s critical tourism sector. Without those employees, Loon said he has “concerns about the viability of resorts.”
It is not yet clear how Trump’s order would apply to seasonal workers critical to Minnesota’s agricultural sector. The ban does not apply to “any alien seeking to enter the United States to provide temporary labor or services essential to the United States food supply chain.”
While visas for temporary workers had already slowed precipitously because of COVID-19, the breadth and length of the order has local and state trade groups coordinating with national groups on a response. Among the talking points will be the entrepreneurial nature of H1B visa recipients and how they start companies of their own and create more jobs than they fill. Another major concern is a brain drain. If the U.S. does not want the talents of temporary foreign workers, America’s competitors likely will.
“There have been some issues with H1B visas in that some of the people [brought in] aren’t all that scarce, they’re just cheaper,” said University of Minnesota trade specialist Robert Kudrle. “But the government’s attitude toward immigration seems to treat all foreigners as if they represent a threat to Americans.”
The latest available federal data for fiscal 2020 show that the largest H1B employers in Minnesota are U.S. Bank National Association (99 initial and continuing visas), Optum Services (81), Medtronic/Covidien (66), Mayo Clinic (60), and University of Minnesota (53).
In addition to highly skilled workers, Trump’s visa suspension also applies to nonagricultural seasonal workers, foreigners transferred within a company with offices outside and inside the U.S. and cultural and educational exchange visas. The ban also extends to anyone traveling with visa recipients.
Weaver called the president’s move “shortsighted.”
The business community “needs to stand strong and united against this,” he said, including, perhaps, a strong stand “at the ballot box.”