The Atlantic looks at landscapers’ use of foreign workers

Updated Jul 28, 2016

mowed-grassThe Atlantic has been among the nation’s most prestigious magazines for well over a century, so its story this month on the H-2B program got our attention. Frankly, it’s gratifying to see a mass-circulation magazine – especially one with The Atlantic’s reputation and historical pedigree – turn its attention to the industry we cover every day.

Better still was the article’s treatment of the H-2B issue itself, beginning with the title: “Many Americans Want Work, but They Don’t Want to Mow Lawns … At least not for what landscapers want to pay.”

The visiting foreign worker program is tailor-made for mischaracterization, whether by immigration opponents such as U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) or well-meaning organizations that claim large numbers of temporary workers are routinely mistreated. The Atlantic’s story, however, written by Alexia Fernández Campbell, a staff writer for the magazine, remains focused on the real, baseline question that must be answered in judging the program: Is the need genuine?

NALP-logoThe National Association of Landscape Professionals says it is, while Sessions and various representatives of organized labor maintain that the use of visiting foreign workers is simply a way to obtain cheap labor, taking jobs from Americans in the process.

That’s why I like the title of the Atlantic piece and especially the fact that the writer outlines, without melodrama, what U.S. landscape companies must do in order to employ temporary foreign workers through the H-2B visa program.

After doing so, she makes the no-nonsense observation that “it’s hard to imagine that any business would go through such a bureaucratic, expensive hassle unless they truly had a shortage of workers.”

I’m glad she also reported what we’ve found to be the case with respect to H-2B workers in the landscaping industry; namely, that they’re not being hired to undercut or bring down wages for other workers. The writer notes that most visiting workers she came across in researching the story were offered between $12 and $18 an hour.

That sounds about right.

It’s interesting, I think, that one of the strongest supporters of the H-2B program is the National Hispanic Landscape Alliance. Reputable landscaping companies pay well above the minimum wage, NHLA says, and they don’t hire undocumented workers. The H-2B program is critical, the organization notes on its website, simply because “physically demanding, seasonal work, exposed to the heat and sun of the spring, summer, and early autumn months is unattractive to many Americans.”

I’ve been a fan of The Atlantic (formerly The Atlantic Monthly) for more than 40 years. I certainly didn’t expect to come across a story about the H-2B program in the magazine; but, when I did, I was glad to see it was straightforward and factual, and nothing more.

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