The struggles of H-2B and the search for a solution

Updated Jul 17, 2017
Landscapers are continuing to struggle to find enough workers to meet their needs during the busy season. Photo: J Stimp/FlickrLandscapers are continuing to struggle to find enough workers to meet their needs during the busy season.
Photo: J Stimp/Flickr

While Congress passed a bill to keep the government funded until Sept. 30, 2017, it also allowed the Secretary of Homeland Security to raise the H-2B cap if there is an economic need.

The National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP) and other proponents of the guest worker program are lobbying for this H-2B cap relief to be implemented, but even then the increase only applies through the fall, once again leaving landscapers the victims of the vicious cycle.

Another concern is the fact that while the Secretary of Homeland Security can raise the number of H-2B visas from the standard 66,000 per year to just under 130,000, the workers will arrive far too late.

The process is a tedious and expensive one, which contradicts some oppositions’ claims that users of the H-2B program only want cheap labor.

One of the requirements to even qualify for the H-2B program is to prove that there are not enough American workers who are willing, able and qualified to do the temporary work. Texas is the biggest user of the program and 49 percent of the visas are for landscaping companies.

“It’s the only way we can survive,” Bruce Birdsong, CEO of Precision Landscape Management based in Dallas, told the Dallas News.

Birdsong’s company is currently looking for 50 workers to add to its crews during peak season and focuses on hiring Americans, but due to a low unemployment rate in the state along with the job being seasonal and paying $12.50 an hour, the interest is low.

Texas isn’t the only state where landscapers are struggling either. The landscaping industry as a whole is largest user of the H-2B program and those that count on the returning worker exemption to be included each year can find themselves in a world of hurt.

Stephen Faulkner, who owns Faulkner’s Landscaping and Nursery in Hooksett, New Hampshire, has calculated he will have to turn down jobs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars because he was unable to secure visas for his six Mexican employees who have been with the company for a decade.

“My company is being devastated by not having my returning workers,” he told AP News. “I’m running out of energy and fortitude, and American jobs might be lost because of it.”

He has contemplated closing the landscaping division.

Even when landscaping companies secure visas for their workers, there is no guarantee as to when they will arrive in the country.

Schill Grounds Management, based in North Ridgeville, Ohio, has been struggling with staffing for 15 years in order to maintain the 120 laborers needed during the busy season. Jerry Schill, president and co-owner of the company, recalled how two years ago his workers were delayed for weeks.

“We were certified, we were told our guys were coming; they never showed up,” he told Crain’s Cleveland Business. “Their start dates were moved two weeks, two weeks, the next thing we knew it was Memorial Day. That year, we lost $957,000 in contract revenue because we were miserable for three months of the spring.”

It is uncertain if the new administration will make the situation better or worse. The crackdown on illegal immigration has some worried it may hurt their ability to attract their seasonal workers and all around bureaucracy makes the program more difficult than necessary.

Yet President Donald Trump has defended the use of H-2B at his Mar-a-Lago resort telling the New York Times: “I want to protect our borders. I also want to protect our businesses. They have to come in legally, and then they go back. Certain areas, in really successful areas, where we can’t get help, many people do that. That’s a good thing. Otherwise, you hurt your business.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and ranking member Dianne Feinstein are calling for a more in-depth and sincere look at the nation’s immigration laws and possibly a better solution than the Band-Aid that the returning worker exemption is.

“We understand the needs of employers who rely on seasonal H-2B workers if the American workforce can’t meet the demand, but we are also aware of the potential side effects of flooding the labor force with more temporary foreign workers, including depressed wages for all workers in seasonal jobs,” they said in a statement.  “The bottom line is that this issue deserves more thoughtful consideration.”

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