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Lack of Foreign Workers Has Seasonal Businesses Scrambling

Lack of Foreign Workers Has Seasonal Businesses Scrambling
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Lack of Foreign Workers Has Seasonal Businesses Scrambling

Lack of Foreign Workers Has Seasonal Businesses Scrambling

SALT LAKE CITY – Tyler Holt summed up the problem his Utah landscaping business faces every year. “People who want to be in the workforce want stability – if they want to work, they work full time,” he said. “Locally, there are just no workers who want to do something seasonal. “

The complaint was echoed not only by landscapers in Utah, but also by amusement parks in Wyoming, restaurants in Rhode Island, crab trappers in Maryland, camps in Colorado and thousands of other businesses. across the country who depend on seasonal workers from overseas to work. low-wage non-farm jobs.

The rush for these temporary guest workers has been intense in recent years, as the unemployment rate declined and tensions over immigration policy intensified. But this year, after the coronavirus pandemic first halted and then seriously constrained the flow of foreign workers to the United States, the competition has been particularly fierce.

The Biden administration responded to frantic calls from small businesses in the spring. It has not renewed the pandemic-related suspension of the J-1 program, which provides short-term visas designed for international students coming to the United States for work and travel. Soon after, he increased the quota for temporary visas under the H-2B program for non-farm temporary workers, which are issued by lot.

But travel restrictions, backlogs and delays by foreign consulates in approving applicants have always left businesses from Maine to California in a bind.

Mr Holt, general manager of Golden Landscaping and Lawn in Orem, asked for 60 H-2B workers, hoping the team could be in place by April 1, when the season began. He struck out the first lottery, but was luckier the second time around, when the administration increased the quota by a third.

On July 9, Mr. Holt was delighted to learn that his application had been approved. But now, roughly halfway through his eight-month season, no worker has yet arrived.

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“Nothing,” he said with disgust when asked two weeks later for an update.

Mr Holt said he increased his regular hourly wage by $ 14 – from $ 2, then $ 3, then $ 4, and then $ 5 – to attract local workers. “I will give a job to anyone who wants to work,” he said. The teams he has in place work 60 to 70 hours a week to meet demand.

Landscapers like Mr. Holt employ more H-2B workers than any other industry – about half of the approved total. And their inability to put in a workforce by the start of the season has been costly.

Ken Doyle, president of All States Landscaping in Draper, Utah, said the late arrival of 27 temporary foreign workers cost him 15-20% of his business, or about $ 1 million.

“We are so far behind,” he said. “We lost some really big accounts.

Mr. Doyle acknowledges that work can lead to blisters and back pain. “It’s hard work,” he said one day when the temperature rose above 100 degrees. “It’s hot outside. They dig holes for sprinklers or trees, lay sod and lift heavy objects.

Under the H-2B visa program that Mr. Doyle and Mr. Holt rely on, the number of seasonal foreign workers is typically capped at 66,000 per year, split between the winter season and the summer season. summer. Veteran workers, who returned year after year, were previously exempt from the total, but Congress ended the practice in 2017 as the immigration debate heated up. The following year, the government instituted a lottery system which added another layer of uncertainty to a frustrating process.

“It’s a big gamble if you want to be a viable business,” Mr. Doyle said.

Programs for temporary guest workers have long come under attack from many quarters. Labor groups and immigration critics argue it robs American workers of jobs and lowers wages. And every year there are disturbing examples of foreign workers being exploited by employers, deprived of their wages or living in squalid conditions.

Many employers argue that people do not understand the peculiarities of the seasonal labor market and have changed their attitude, especially towards manual work.

“Fifteen or twenty years ago we could enroll local summer kids in high school or college,” Mr. Holt said. “These workers are simply not there anymore. It is easier to do something other than forced labor for eight to nine hours a day.

Mr. Doyle spent nearly $ 30,000 advertising workers as far as Nevada and got no response, he said. For the past year, he has parked a 20-foot trailer in front of his office, carrying a sign that read, “NOW HIRING.” WALK-INS WELCOME.

“I brought in two people all year,” he said.

Higher wages could encourage more US-born workers to apply for these jobs, said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute at New York University School of Law. But he argues that in every job market there are difficult, unpleasant, and low-paying jobs with no opportunity for advancement – like farm labor or meat packing – that are considered less desirable for economic and cultural reasons. .

Some of the attitudes towards jobs, especially in service sectors, are changing, he said, but “we have not yet fully understood the impact of the pandemic”.

Temporary guest workers have also become entangled in broader and more bitter arguments over immigration. According to Mr. Chishti, there is a common misconception that all foreign workers are eager to relocate to the United States.

“A lot of workers don’t necessarily want to come and live here forever,” he said. “They want to work legally and go back and forth. Their life in Mexico, for example, may be better than life in an American city.

In the meantime, employers are in trouble. Small resort towns often depend on international seasonal workers as their population is not large enough to fill all of the suddenly available niches in hotels, restaurants, ice cream parlors or ski slopes that serve the hordes of tourists that appear and then disappear.

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“We just don’t have enough local workers to be able to support the economy like it needs to be in the summer,” said Jen Hayes, who is the J-1 visa program liaison for Old Orchard Beach, a coastal town. south of Portland, Maine.

Historically, the city has had between 650 and 740 international students in the summer – from countries like Turkey, Romania and Russia – but Hayes estimated there were only 125 to 150 at the end of July. An early summer meeting that is usually bustling with activity attracted only a handful of people.

The labor shortage has forced some businesses to limit their hours or close an extra day per week.

Exorbitant housing costs in vacation-friendly enclaves – whether it’s the Hamptons, Ketchum, Idaho or Provincetown, Massachusetts – further reduce the pool of available workers, foreign or domestic.

In Maine, where the economy relies heavily on tourism and foreign visitors, workers with J-1 or H-2B visas typically make up about 10-14% of the seasonal workforce, said Greg Dugal. , government director. business at HospitalityMaine, a commercial group.

But this year, the state will be fortunate enough to receive half the usual number, Mr Dugal said, adding that many of those who have been approved for the summer have arrived later than usual due to delays in treatment.

“The fact remains that we had a shortage of workers before the pandemic,” he said, and “we have a worse shortage of workers after the pandemic for the same reason and many other reasons.”

Patricia cohen reported from Salt Lake City, and Sydney embers of Portland, Maine.

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