With jobs to fill, businesses play the visa lottery

Patricia Cohen
Jose Vera Ramirez grades a lawn while working for Phil Steinhauer’s landscaping business in the Denver metro area, June 26, 2018. 
Benjamin Rasmussen | The New York Times

Ronda Fox finally got the news last week, three months into planting season: The federal government approved her application to employ more than a dozen temporary foreign workers for her family-owned landscaping business in Aurora, Colo.

She had hoped to have her crew in place by April 1, but had initially lost out in this year’s visa lottery. “Better late than never,” Ms. Fox said.

In Centennial, a quick car ride away, Phil Steinhauer faced the same hiring challenge for his landscaping business. But his application for 150 temporary foreign workers was selected through the federal lottery in the first round, and his hires were in place when the season started.

More from the New York Times:

Labor unions will be smaller after Supreme Court decision, but maybe not weaker

China's Huawei leads as corporate sponsor of Australian politicians' travel

Robots or job training: manufacturers grapple with how to improve their economic fortunes

Mr. Steinhauer, though, is far from satisfied with the way he had to fill the jobs. “You can’t build a business on a lottery,” he said.

What the two business owners have in common is their reliance on the H-2B visa program, which allows unskilled workers from Mexico, the Philippines, Jamaica and dozens of other countries to take temporary nonfarm jobs in the United States.

Debates over using foreign workers for seasonal labor — lower-wage jobs that Americans have spurned — have been as constant as the calendar. But a tight labor market and the fraught politics of immigration have added new urgency to the issue in an election year when Republicans and Democrats are wrestling for control in Congress.

Unions and immigration opponents argue that the program suppresses wages and deprives Americans of jobs. Advocacy groups contend that foreign workers are often exploited. Employers insist that the refusal to face up to the worker shortage just encourages businesses to hire undocumented immigrants surreptitiously at below-market wages.

But this year, the conflicts have intensified. Record low unemployment rates have left landscapers, restaurants, hotels, amusement parks and others scrambling for low-skilled seasonal labor. Changes in the rules governing the program caught many employers by surprise, threatening the crab industry in Maryland and tourist havens in Maine.

The visa program also feeds the increasingly bitter debate over immigration.

To Mr. Steinhauer, “it’s a labor issue that gets thrown into the immigration debate because people are coming from foreign countries, and the country is so divided on that.”

USDA's Sonny Perdue: Farmers concerned 'patriotism can't pay the bills'

Congress has capped the annual number of H-2B visas at 66,000 — evenly split between the winter and summer seasons — although administrations have at times increased the allotment.

Workers from previous years used to be excluded from the quota, but Congress halted that practice in 2017 in response to complaints that foreigners undermined American workers. This year, the traditional first-come, first-served system was replaced by a lottery after the government was swamped with applications. Some longtime users like Ms. Fox, who said she filed her application at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, were shut out.

Last month, after frantic requests, the Department of Homeland Security agreed to issue an additional 15,000 visas. Ms. Fox got lucky and snagged a dozen of those slots, though her crew, all veterans of previous seasons, is unlikely to arrive from Mexico until next month.

Applicants have to prove they can’t fill jobs. “You really cannot find a reliable work force at $15 an hour,” the occupation’s prevailing wage in Colorado, Ms. Fox said. The area has a 2.5 percent jobless rate, so when it comes to hiring, she said, “there’s just no worker bees here.”

A certified public accountant, Ms. Fox shakes her head when she hears economists insist that theory dictates that wages should rise until they are high enough to attract workers.

Her company, All Seasons Landscaping, is in Colorado’s Sixth Congressional District, which wraps around Denver like a question mark. It has an unusually high proportion of college graduates and an unusually low unemployment rate; the average annual salary for workers who are not self-employed is nearly $63,000.

Landscape work is harsh. Digging in the dirt and heaving equipment in blistering heat produces aching backs and raw hands. Low-skilled workers can earn a similar wage making a sandwich or working in an air-conditioned warehouse.

“We put a $5,000 ad in The Denver Post, and we didn’t have one applicant,” Ms. Fox said. Paying a wage high enough to attract local workers would put her out of business, she said, because her customers would balk at the resulting price increases.

Like Ms. Fox and other landscapers, Mr. Steinhauer signed planting contracts with customers last year based on the assumption that his crews would earn roughly $15 an hour. “These are unskilled positions,” he said. “Would you pay $50 to plant a bush in your garden?”

“With the economy as good as it is, I don’t know many families who are telling their kids to become landscape laborers,” Mr. Steinhauer said. “And who wants to work a job where you get laid off in November and then come back?”

Creating jobs, particularly for neglected blue-collar working men, and reducing immigration have been at the center of President Trump’s agenda and a lodestar for his supporters. Lower jobless rates support the Republicans’ case that the economy is improving. And the increasingly hard line on immigration provides a framework for the administration’s policies on legal as well as illegal migrants.

At the same time, many small entrepreneurs and merchants say they have found a kindred spirit in a businessman turned president who understands and quickly responds to their needs. After all, H-2B workers are hired regularly at Mar-a-Lago, his country club in Palm Beach, Fla., and other Trump properties.

Smart weed-killing robots are here to disrupt the pesticide industry

These political crosscurrents are coursing through the Sixth District, which has one of the most closely watched midterm House races. A revision of the district’s boundaries combined with waves of immigrants and refugees from Ethiopia, Mexico and Nepal in recent decades has turned it into one of the state’s most diverse. It is one of 25 districts that sent a Republican representative to Washington in 2016 at the same time it gave Hillary Clinton a plurality — in this case, by a nine-point margin.

Defeating the five-term Republican incumbent, Mike Coffman, is a critical part of the Democrats’ push to win back the House in November.

Mr. Coffman distanced himself from Mr. Trump during the 2016 campaign, though he has supported him in more than 95 percent of his House votes. On immigration, Mr. Coffman has taken a more moderate line, supporting, for example, a permanent solution for the so-called Dreamers, undocumented adults who were brought to the United States as children. And he recently called on the president to part ways with his adviser Stephen Miller over the family separation issue.

Ms. Fox, who describes herself as a fierce independent and a “conservative by nature,” said that the Dreamers should be protected from deportation and that she was disturbed that children were being separated from their parents at the border.

“I don’t agree with any of it,” said Ms. Fox, who wants a long-term immigration policy. She hasn’t settled on her midterm vote yet, but said she liked Mr. Coffman.

As for the H-2B program, Mr. Steinhauer and Ms. Fox said they did not blame Mr. Trump for its flaws, noting that there were similar problems under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

“I put the blame on Congress,” Ms. Fox said. “The whole issue is so toxic. Everyone in politics is afraid to do anything.”

WATCH: Impact of tariffs on farmers

Tariffs are a big deal in the long run: Economist