A new program formulated to help restaurants combat labor issues has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Essential Workers for Economic Advancement program would create a pathway for workers from outside the U.S. to come on market-driven, non-immigrant, three-year visas, with the opportunity for extensions of up to six years.
Employers and employees would both apply to participate. Once a company is approved, an EWEA worker would be matched to a specific position and location. The employees would have the ability to move between qualifying positions and seek training and growth opportunities. Both employer and employee would have to participate in employment verification through E-Verify.
“There is no silver bullet to solving the industry’s recruitment challenge, but this program creates one opportunity to address the issue,” Sean Kennedy, the National Restaurant Association’s executive vice president of public affairs, said in a statement. “The overlapping blows of the pandemic and now an inflationary economy are limiting industry operations.”
“For restaurants to fully recover and grow, we have to be open at full capacity—and to do that we have to continue to grow our workforce,” he added. “This program is a win-win for employers in desperate need of employees and individuals seeking training and opportunity.”
Designed for small businesses, the program would be available for non-agriculture jobs with lower education thresholds that have been unfilled for extended periods of time. Employers would have to prove that no equally or better qualified U.S. worker is able to fill the position.
Initially the EWEA would be available to 65,000 workers, with the possibility to grow to 85,000—or drop to 45,000—depending on market-based needs. Twenty-five percent of that workforce would be allocated for businesses like restaurants that promote nationally recognized employee safety and health programs, hire workers under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, or have comparatively low sales per employee.
Unlike the Specialty Occupations Workforce program, family members would not be eligible to join participants in the U.S.
“The Essential Workers for Economic Advancement Act addresses a pressing problem for a host of industries that is stalling economic growth – a chronic worker shortage. Restaurants are vital drivers in every community, so I appreciate the on-going input and support of the National Restaurant Association in bringing this legislation to introduction,” Rep. Lloyd Smucker said in a statement.
The potential program comes as roughly half of operators expect recruiting and retention to be their top obstacle this year, according to the Association’s 2022 State of the Industry report. Prior to the pandemic, more than one-third described recruiting and retention as their top challenge.
The legislation was also announced a few weeks after Congress decided to walk away from replenishing the $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund. Roughly 177,000 qualifying restaurants were unable to receive funding last year.