COVID-19 has created a multitude of unprecedented challenges for visa applicants, employers, and the government employees that process visa petitions and applications.

Employers face daily challenges balancing long-term strategies to maintain a complete workforce with short-term strategies to manage payroll and cash flow. While the government has issued certain temporary solutions to provide flexibility with I-9 processes, biometrics appointments, and other minor issues, it has largely declined to institute more significant policy changes. As a result, USCIS processing times are beginning to grow, and likely will continue this way for some time.

USCIS Data Entry, Receipt Notice Delays for H-1B Cap Cases

On April 13, 2020, USCIS announced that there will be a delay in data entry and receipt notice generation for the fiscal year (FY) 2021 H-1B cap-subject petitions. As petitions are filed with USCIS, they will be stamped with the date on which they are received by the service center. However, data entry will not begin on those filings until at least May 1, 2020, “due to the impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19).”

Once data entry begins, cases will be receipted on a first-come, first-served basis and retain the receipt date that was stamped on the petition when it arrived at the service center. USCIS noted that the delay in receipt notices also will delay the processing of the petitions. Last year, data processing on H-1B cap-subject petitions was completed by May 17, 2019. This year, processing of receipts is likely to extend much later than May 17, 2020.

Ongoing Suspension of Premium Processing

Suspension of premium processing service on USCIS petitions remains in place until at least the end of May. Thus, the projected processing delays may exacerbate issues for those with sensitive expiration dates (such as cap-gap petitioners). To address that issue, USCIS has stated it will be “mindful” of those petitions. Additionally, to enhance efficiencies, USCIS will be transferring petitions among different service centers to create a balanced workload.

Potential Office Closures, Additional Delays

On April 10, 2020, the Vermont Service Center appeared to be temporarily closed due to a possible COVID-19 exposure. However, as of April 13, the Center was reopened. While there have been no notices regarding changes in work schedules at the USCIS Service Centers, employers and visa applicants should anticipate the possibility of future USCIS office closures, or USCIS workforce reductions, which could result in further processing delays. H-1B cap cases may be the first casualty, but other delays in processing times likely are forthcoming.

Given the frequency of USCIS updates, it is critical that employers remain diligent in monitoring and considering their foreign national workforce amidst rolling government updates on processing times and delays. Employers should be prepared to submit essential filings at the earliest possible date to avoid potential complications and delays.