Neha Mahajan was a television journalist in India before her husband’s job moved her family to the US in 2008 pandemic brought her back into the game.
Ms. Mahajan started work after a rule change by the Obama administration in 2015 allowed spouse visa people to hold jobs, and she took on a new business development position at an immigration law firm in early 2021. But processing delays related to the pandemic caused her jobs to go out in July, forcing her to take a leave of absence.
“It’s just emotional and draining you,” said Ms. Mahajan, 39, who lives in Scotch Plains, NJ. lives
The last week brought respite, if only temporarily. She received approval documents for her renewed work permit, which enabled her to return to the labor market. But a process that should have taken three months expanded to 10 and left them out for the entire summer. And since her visa is tied to that of her husband, she will have to reapply for approval in December when his visa is due for renewal.
Hundreds of thousands of foreign workers have disappeared from the job market in the wake of the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic, leaving holes in white-collar professions such as the one Ms. Mahajan works in and in service-oriented jobs in beach towns and ski resorts. Newcomers and temporary visa applicants were initially constrained by policy changes under former President Donald J. Trump, who used a range of executive measures to slow many types of legal immigration. Then travel restrictions and bureaucratic backlogs in the pandemic era led to a steep decline in immigration, threatening a long-term loss of talent and economic potential.
Some of these missing would-be employees are likely to come and work when travel restrictions are lifted and the visa processing backlog clears, as Ms. Mahajan’s example suggests. But recent immigration lost to the pandemic is likely to leave a permanent void. Goldman Sachs in a study this month estimated that the economy is lacking 700,000 temporary visa holders and permanent immigrants, and that perhaps 300,000 of those people would never come to the United States to work.
Employers keep complaining that they have difficulty hiring and job vacancies are exceeding the number of people actively looking for work, despite the fact that millions fewer people are working compared to just before the pandemic. The onset of immigration is one of the many reasons for the separation. Companies that rely on foreign labor have found waves of infection and processing delays in consulates keeping potential employees in their home countries or stuck in America but simply unable to work.
“Employers have to wait a long time for their petitions to be approved and renewals are not processed in a timely manner,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration attorney who teaches at Cornell Law School. “It will take a long time for them to work off the backlog.”
The influx of workers had already slowed sharply before the pandemic, due to crackdowns by the Trump administration that made it difficult for foreign workers, refugees and immigrant families to enter the US. But the pandemic took that decline and accelerated it dramatically: the total number of visas issued fell by 4.7 million last year.
Many of these visas would have gone to short-term visitors and tourists – people who are likely to return if travel restrictions are lifted. But hundreds of thousands of the visas would have gone to workers. Without it, some employers struggle.
Guests at Penny Fernald’s Inn on Mount Desert Island, Maine had to stop by the front desk this summer to pick up towels. Turndown service was limited because only one of the four foreign housekeepers Mrs. Fernald employed on a typical summer could come into the country through a consulate that year.
Vacationers wanting a reinterpreted Waldorf salad at Salt & Steel, a nearby restaurant, had to call ahead and hope that the restaurant was closed with few staff.
“This was the busiest season Bar Harbor has ever seen and we turned people away every night,” said Bobby Will, the cook and co-owner of Salt & Steel.
Oct. 25, 2021, 4:44 p.m. ET
He usually hires a few foreign workers to work for other local companies during the day and then work for him at night. This year it was basically impossible. He found himself in six out of 18 workers. He modified dishes to make them easier to serve – a lobster risotto with roasted chanterelles and hand-garnished became a seafood cassoulet – but labor-saving innovations were not enough. It ended up closing on Mondays as well, and he estimates he was missing $ 6,500 to $ 8,000 in sales a night.
“It was just extremely difficult for Bar Harbor,” he said of his city, a summer tourism hotspot between Frenchman Bay and Acadia National Park.
The Biden administration lifted a Trump-era pandemic ban on legal immigration in February, and the number of foreigners entering the US on visas has rebounded this year. Monthly data show an incipient but incomplete recovery.
But some categories of visas that weren’t given high priority, including many temporary work permits, have waited long months for approval. Travel restrictions related to the pandemic have kept other foreign workers at home.
The State Department reported that nearly half a million people remained on its immigrant visa backlog in September, compared with about 61,000 on average in 2019.
The status of US jobs
The pandemic continues to affect the US economy in a variety of ways. One important factor to keep in mind is the job market and how it is changing as the economy recovers.
It is not clear what the 2020 decline in immigration and the slow return to normal will mean for the country’s labor market in the future. Goldman Sachs’ estimate that the US is short of 700,000 foreign workers is based on a crude methodology. The Congressional Budget Office estimated at the end of last year that 2.5 million fewer people would immigrate in the 2020s than estimated before the pandemic. Immigration tends to build on itself as legal permanent residents bring family members with them, so the decline this decade is expected to result in an additional 840,000 fewer immigrants between 2031 and 2040.
The “cut comes in part due to travel restrictions and limited ability to process visas related to the pandemic,” the office wrote in its September 2020 long-term budget outlook.
Both numbers make up a relatively small fraction of the American workforce, now numbering 161 million people. But from an economic point of view – and from the point of view of many American companies – the timing could hardly be worse. America’s population is aging and fertility rates are falling. The growth of the labor force in recent years has been largely driven by immigrants and their children. Fewer immigrants means fewer future workers.
If businesses can’t figure out how to produce more with fewer people, a future where the working-age population is growing more slowly means the economy is likely to have less room to expand.
The pandemic decline in immigration is not the cause of this economic sclerosis, but it could cause the disease to progress faster.
While millions of Americans remain unemployed and potentially available for jobs, employers say pandemic aftershocks have made hiring difficult. Some households do not have childcare or are afraid of the virus coming back. Others rethink careers in pioneering industries after a collective health trauma that changes perspective. Often times, immigrants work in jobs that struggle to attract local workers.
Some companies are reluctant to pay enough to attract locals. Ms. Fernald has received some domestic help applications, but she pays $ 16.50 an hour and applicants were hoping for $ 20-23.
Even for those willing to pay what would-be workers – Mr Will paid chefs $ 22 an hour and guaranteed 10 hours of overtime a week – it was difficult to make up for missing local exchange students and temporary seasonal workers from abroad. He hopes hiring will be easier in 2022.
“To be honest, I don’t know what to expect,” he said.
Ms. Mahajan in New Jersey gave a glimmer of hope that some sort of normalcy might return, but also of concern that it will not.
“I couldn’t believe it – I thought, ‘Wow,'” she said the moment she got her approval. But the relief can only last for a short time, as her visa is inextricably linked to that of her husband.
“I could be in the same situation again before summer,” she said. “It’s like an infinite furrow.”