The limited supply of workers has already hampered US companies and it’s at risk of being exacerbated by immigrants unable to keep jobs because they can’t legally work until their permits are renewed. US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which adjudicates and approves work permits, says there’s an unprecedented backlog of 1.4 million work permit applications pending, including initial applications and renewals.
USCIS didn’t have a breakdown of how many of those permits have lapsed because of the backlog, but an agency official told CNN they’ve been hearing from those affected about the problem.
“We’re hearing from companies. We’re hearing from non-profits. We’re hearing from hospitals. And we’re hearing directly from the individuals affected,” the official said. “We’re very aware of the problem from all the way to the top of the agency and the department.”
Some immigrants, including asylum seekers, are allowed to work in the US while their cases are pending — a process that often takes years to complete — and they’re required to renew those permits on a regular basis.
But without those renewals granted, work permits are lapsing, leaving employers no choice but to terminate workers even during a worker shortage.
“The severity of the labor shortage is unprecedented,” said Gad Levanon, vice president of labor markets at The Conference Board, a business membership think tank. “When the labor shortage is so severe, any additional factor that is pulling away people from the labor market is more noticeable.”
The National Association of Business Economics found that nearly half
(47%) of respondents to its recent Business Conditions Survey reported a shortage of skilled workers in the third quarter, up from 32% reporting shortages in the second quarter of the year.
“If the labor market was normal, then it would be easier for these companies to replace the ones that lost a work permit,” Levanon added. “Now, finding a qualified worker to replace is much more difficult.”
The months-long delays in renewing work permits has been “disruptive” for companies, said Jon Baselice, vice president of immigration policy at the US Chamber of Commerce, who has frequently heard from companies concerned about processing issues.
“It’s been quite disruptive,” he said. “You’re talking about a situation where a company can’t retain an employee at least in the short term because of lack of paperwork.”
For those employees, the wait for what’s otherwise routine paperwork means putting off plans and fretting over family finances.
Abelardo Rios, a telecommunications field technician residing in Florida, was suspended from his job last week. Rios, who’s seeking political asylum in the US, submitted his application for a renewal in February, three months before his work permit expired. He’s still waiting.
“We don’t have any benefits, no medical insurance. They put the position on hold, but my family doesn’t have benefits right now,” Rios told CNN in Spanish.
One of the most frustrating parts of the ordeal for Rios, who is the sole provider for his wife and 17-year-old daughter, is that he doesn’t have the option to find another job. He can’t work until his renewal request is granted, as it’s been many times before.
In recent weeks, the Asylum Seekers Advocacy Project has received hundreds of inquiries from people who say their work permits have expired or are on the cusp of expiring, according to Leidy Perez-Davis, policy director at the Asylum Seekers Advocacy Project. They include doctors and specialists who attended to patients at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, engineers and long-haul truck drivers, among others.
The Asylum Seekers Advocacy Project, along with the American Immigration Council and Lakin & Wille LLP, filed a lawsuit this month
challenging the “unreasonable delays” in renewing work authorizations for asylum seekers. Vera de Aponte is a named plaintiff in the ASAP lawsuit.