The COVID-19 pandemic is reportedly delaying processing of this year’s H-1B visas, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). (And that's before President Trump institutes bigger restrictions on U.S. immigration, per his April 20 Tweet.)

“Beginning with the first day of filing, April 1, 2020, we will not immediately enter data for FY 2021 cap-subject petitions due to the COVID-19 pandemic and required health and safety protocols,” read the agency’s note. “Data entry and notice generation will be delayed until at least May 1, 2020.”

When data entry actually begins, USCIS will process petitions in the order they were received. “Petitions, if otherwise properly filed, will retain the receipt date that corresponds with the date the petition is received at the service center,” the note added.

Announcement of the delay comes after a record number of H-1B applications (275,000) were filed with USCIS’s new electronic pre-registration system for the 2020-21 fiscal year. That pre-registration system was supposed to streamline the H-1B application process. “As a result of this modernized process, the amount of paper and data exchanged between USCIS and petitioners will dramatically decrease this year,” USCIS Deputy Director for Policy Joseph Edlow wrote in a statement following the application period. 

“The positive feedback received by users of the H-1B registration system, the limited amount of technical issues experienced during the registration period, and the ability to immediately respond to questions from registrants was the result of a comprehensive effort developed over the course of more than a year,” he added. Only those companies whose pre-registrations are selected via lottery will complete the (lengthier) visa petitions; now those companies may face complications due to the pandemic-related USCIS delays.

COVID-19 isn’t just impacting the processing of this year’s H-1B applications; it’s also sparking a debate over whether the visa allows workers to continue their jobs from a remote location. For example, the Department of Labor (DOL) recently issued a FAQ guide for complying with Labor Condition Applications (LCAs) during the pandemic, which claimed that workers with a radically altered workflow, or who end up working from home for longer than 30 days, may need to file an amended petition with USCIS. 

However, some attorneys think that the vast majority of H-1B workers won’t have to file an amended petition. “For an H-1B employee, an amended petition or LCA [labor condition application] should not be required as long as the employee is working in the same capacity and within typical commuting distance of the work location on the original petition and LCA,” William Stock of Klasko Immigration Law Partners recently told Forbes.

A flood of amended petitions would no doubt snarl things still further. It’s still relatively early days for the pandemic, but it’s clearly having an impact on the H-1B visa. 

For more COVID-19 content, check out the COVID-19 Jobs Resource Center.