Caught in a la­bor squeeze

Deal could help land­scap­ers, builders hire more mi­grant work­ers

The Dallas Morning News - - BUSINESS - By TOM BENNING Wash­ing­ton Bureau tben­ning@dal­las­

WASH­ING­TON — North Texas land­scaper Bruce Bird­song is sweat­ing these prime months of bloom­ing flow­ers and freshly clipped grass.

In­creased de­mand for day la­bor­ers, caused by a con­struc­tion boom, has made it hard to staff up for the peak sea­son, he says. Ad­ding to the squeeze has been a fed­eral cap on a tem­po­rary mi­grant worker pro­gram that he and oth­ers say is es­sen­tial to fill­ing jobs they oth­er­wise couldn’t.

“It’s the only way we can sur­vive,” said Bird­song, whose Pre­ci­sion Land­scape Man­age­ment in Farm­ers Branch is look­ing to add 50 work­ers to its crews.

Congress may have just pro­vided land­scap­ers, builders and ho­tel op­er­a­tors the re­lief they’ve been want­ing. That’s be­cause a pro­vi­sion tucked into a spend­ing bill passed last week could dou­ble the num­ber of H-2B visas that cover those sea­sonal, low-wage, non­farm work­ers.

But the ac­tion could also rekin­dle a com­plex and long-sim­mer­ing le­gal im­mi­gra­tion bat­tle, par­tic­u­larly with a pres­i­dent who uses those work­ers while still push­ing a “hire Amer­i­can” theme.

Back­ers say the pro­gram boosts the econ­omy by fill­ing less de­sir­able jobs that sup­port other bet­ter-pay­ing po­si­tions. But crit­ics, who of­ten point to in­stances of abuse, ar­gue that it’s an end-around that takes away lo­cal jobs and de­presses wages for U.S. work­ers.

Those com­pet­ing dy­nam­ics have jum­bled the po­lit­i­cal di­vide. Con­sider that the H-2B visa pro­gram is the rare is­sue where a lib­eral icon like Ver­mont Sen. Bernie San­ders and a tea party hero like Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert

are on the same side — in this case, op­posed.

“Some of us want to get the Amer­i­cans who are here hired,” said Gohmert, a Tyler Repub­li­can.

Much of Amer­ica’s im­mi­gra­tion de­bate fo­cuses on those who en­ter the coun­try il­le­gally. And even when it comes to le­gal visa pro­grams, more at­ten­tion is typ­i­cally paid to the H-1B visas that sup­port high-skilled work­ers in the tech in­dus­try.

But the guest worker setup for tem­po­rary, nona­gri­cul­tural jobs has grown in im­por­tance.

Cur­rent law lim­its the pro­gram to 66,000 visas a year, split evenly be­tween an ap­pli­ca­tion pe­riod in the fall and an­other in the spring. Texas com­pa­nies are by far the big­gest users of the pro­gram, ac­count­ing for 15 per­cent of the po­si­tions cer­ti­fied last year.

But it’s not just land­scap­ers toil­ing in the Texas heat. Ski lodges in Colorado use it. As do crab­bers in Mary­land. As does Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who’s de­fended the use of H-2B visas at his Mar-a-Lago re­sort by say­ing there are “very few qual­i­fied peo­ple dur­ing the high sea­son in the area.”

The pro­gram con­tin­ues to shift with the winds of the econ­omy and the whims of Congress.

Ac­tiv­ity peaked about a decade ago, when Congress lifted the cap and made other tweaks. It tanked in the years fol­low­ing the re­ces­sion. But re­quests for these for­eign work­ers have grown again as the econ­omy has im­proved, with de­mand out­pac­ing sup­ply the last three years.

Law­mak­ers, as a re­sult, loos­ened the lim­its last year. Then they re­versed course in De­cem­ber. Then came the bi­par­ti­san deal struck last week that could add 70,000 or so visas this year.

Boost­ing visas

The mea­sure would al­low the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to boost the num­ber of H-2B work­ers “upon de­ter­mi­na­tion that the needs of Amer­i­can busi­nesses can­not be sat­is­fied in fis­cal year 2017 with United States work­ers who are will­ing, qual­i­fied and able to per­form” such work.

That de­ci­sion re­mains to be seen, but some say the de­ter­mi­na­tion is an easy one.

“Who is ready, will­ing and able to do that job?” Texas Sen. John Cornyn said. “If there is an Amer­i­can, I’m all for it. But what most peo­ple will tell you in a lot of these in­dus­tries, there’s not.”

At Pre­ci­sion Land­scape Man­age­ment, Bird­song said there’s a con­certed ef­fort to hire Amer­i­cans for the scores of jobs they add dur­ing the peak sea­son. Those ef­forts ful­fill one of the H-2B re­quire­ments that a busi­ness show that it’s im­pos­si­ble to find a U.S. worker.

Bird­song said there’s just not a lot of interest from Tex­ans in sea­sonal land­scap­ing jobs that pay $12.50 an hour, par­tic­u­larly when the un­em­ploy­ment rate in the state is rel­a­tively low.

Ge­orge Rivero of Ratliff Hard­scape in Lewisville re­counted a sim­i­lar strug­gle in find­ing stone ma­sons. And Justin Crocker of Earth Tones Com­mer­cial in Mid­loth­ian said it’s dif­fi­cult to com­pete with­out H-2B, par­tic­u­larly since some com­peti­tors use unau­tho­rized im­mi­grants.

“Peo­ple are just hurt­ing for la­bor,” said Robert Ker­shaw, an Austin-based at­tor­ney who rep­re­sents many com­pa­nies seek­ing H-2B visas.

Jobs for Amer­i­cans

But groups rang­ing from unions to im­mi­gra­tion hard­lin­ers re­main un­con­vinced.

Mike Cun­ning­ham, the re­tired ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Texas State Build­ing and Con­struc­tion Trades Coun­cil, has been fight­ing H-2B use for years in the con­struc­tion in­dus­try and be­yond, mak­ing the case that “there are Amer­i­can work­ers who will go af­ter these jobs.”

He of­ten en­cour­ages un­em­ployed U.S. work­ers to ap­ply for the jobs in ques­tion. And he said he’s of­ten found that the com­pa­nies, once chal­lenged, will give up the job post­ings al­to­gether.

“Many of these com­pa­nies, they re­ally don’t want to hire Amer­i­can work­ers,” he said. “They want ac­cess to cheap la­bor.”

Crit­ics also point to some hor­ri­fy­ing news ac­counts of em­ployer abuse to­ward H-2B work­ers, though back­ers say those cases are iso­lated. Bill Beardall of the Equal Jus­tice Cen­ter said those re­ports un­der­score that there are many im­prove­ments Congress could make to the pro­gram.

“It’s not a ques­tion of whether H-2B work­ers are bad or good,” said Beardall, a Univer­sity of Texas law pro­fes­sor. “It’s that with­out the ad­e­quate con­trols to pro­tect both the U.S. work­ers and the tem­po­rary for­eign work­ers, it’s been used to pit one group against the other.”

There’s a chance that broader dis­cus­sion could be on the hori­zon.

The deal reached this week ap­plies only through the fall, leav­ing the fu­ture un­clear for H-2B. Leg­is­la­tion ex­ists to per­ma­nently boost the pool of avail­able visas. Politi­cians like Cornyn have ex­pressed a de­sire to tackle the im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem in a more com­plete way.

And two key law­mak­ers, Sens. Chuck Grass­ley and Dianne Fe­in­stein, have called for a more ro­bust de­bate on H-2B visas.

“The bot­tom line is that this is­sue de­serves more thought­ful con­sid­er­a­tion,” said the duo, the top Repub­li­can and Demo­crat, re­spec­tively, on the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee.

Nathan Hun­singer/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

Work­ers from Pre­ci­sion Land­scape Man­age­ment trim up the en­try­way to a neigh­bor­hood in Lake For­est in Dal­las. An in­creased de­mand for day la­bor­ers, caused by a con­struc­tion boom, has made it hard for some land­scap­ing com­pa­nies and oth­ers to staff up for the peak sea­son.


A worker from Pre­ci­sion Land­scape Man­age­men­tkRL8w-kOwO1kLUOvU-kOlkOkeUIABR8hB88Tk Uel­h1wO1kIekLOKUkF8hU-lkIekCOLLO-.kTBUkS8d4Oe1kI-kL88KIeAk­l8kOTTkYp­kw8hKUh-kl8kIl-kShUw-.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.