Salt Lake City – Tyler Holt summarizes the problem he faces each year in his Utah landscaping business. “People who want to stay in a job want stability – if they want to work, they work full-time,” he said. “There are no employees locally who want to do anything seasonal.”
The complaint has been echoed not only by landowners in Utah, but by amusement parks in Wyoming, restaurants in Rhode Island, crab trappers in Maryland, campsites in Colorado, and thousands of other businesses across the country that rely on seasonal workers from overseas to work. Huh. Low paying non-farm jobs.
The scramble for these temporary guest workers has been intense in recent years, as the unemployment rate has plummeted and tensions have mounted over immigration policy. But this year, when the coronavirus pandemic first halted and then severely disrupted the stream of foreign workers into the United States, competition was particularly fierce.
The Biden administration responded to frantic pleas from small businesses in the spring. it hasn’t been updated a pandemic-related suspension The J-1 program, which provides a short-term visa designed for foreign students coming to the United States to work and travel. Soon after, it quota increased on temporary visa under H-2B Program For temporary non-agricultural workers, who are issued through lottery.
But travel restrictions, backlogs and delays at foreign consulates in approving applicants have still left businesses from Maine to California in the lap.
Mr Holt, chief executive of Golden Landscaping and Lawns in Orem, called for 60 H-2B workers, hoping the team could be in place by 1 April when the season resumes. He dropped out in the preliminary lottery, but was lucky the second time around, when the administration raised the quota by a third.
On 9 July, Mr. Holt was overjoyed to hear that his application had been accepted. But now, almost halfway through its eight-month season, there are still no employees.
“Nothing,” he said with disgust when asked about the update two weeks later.
Mr. Holt said he had raised his usual $14-an-hour wage – $2, then $3, then $4 and then $5 – to attract local workers. “I’ll give a job to anyone who wants to work,” he said. The employees they have are working 60 to 70 hours a week to meet the demand.
Landscapers like Mr. Holt employ more H-2B workers than any other industry—nearly half of the total approved. And his inability to get the workforce through 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 had cost him 15 to 20 percent of his business, about $1 million.
He said, ‘We are far behind. “We’ve lost some really big accounts.”
Mr. Doyle acknowledged that work can cause blisters and back pain. “It’s a tough job,” he said on a day when the temperature exceeded 100 degrees. “It is summer outside. They are digging holes for sprinklers or trees, laying sod and lifting heavy things.”
Under the H-2B visa program that Mr. Doyle and Mr. Holt rely on, the number of seasonal foreign workers is typically 66,000 per year, split between the winter and summer seasons. Veteran workers who returned year after year were exempt from the total, but Congress outlawed that practice in 2017 as the immigration debate heated up. The following year, the government instituted a lottery system that added a new layer of uncertainty over a frustrating process.
“It’s quite a gamble if you’re going to be a viable business,” Mr. Doyle said.
The programs of temporary guest workers have long been under attack in various ways. Labor groups and immigration critics argue that it robs American workers of jobs and lowers wages. And every year, there are disturbing instances in which foreign workers are exploited by employers, cheated of wages or live in poor conditions.
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Many employers contend that people do not understand the peculiarities of the seasonal labor market and the changing attitudes towards manual work in particular.
“Fifteen, 20 years ago we were able to get local summer kids into high school or college,” said Mr. Holt. “Those workers are not there yet. It’s easy to do things other than hard work for eight to nine hours a day. “
Mr Doyle spent about $30,000 advertising for workers as far back as Nevada and received no response, he said. For the past year, he has parked a 20-foot trailer outside his office with a sign read: “RENT NOW. Walk-ins are welcome.”
“I had two guys for the whole year,” he said.
Higher pay could encourage more Native American workers to apply for these jobs, said muzaffar chishtiDirector of the Migration Policy Institute at New York University Law School. But he argues that in every labor market, there are difficult, unpleasant, low-paying jobs with no opportunity for advancement – such as agricultural work or meatpacking – that are viewed as less desirable for both economic and cultural reasons.
Some attitudes towards jobs, especially in the service sectors, are changing, he said, but “we do not yet understand the impact of the pandemic.”
Temporary guest workers have also become embroiled in wider and more acrimonious arguments over immigration. There is a widespread misconception, Mr. Chisti said, that all foreign workers are eager to settle in the United States.
“A lot of workers don’t necessarily want to come and stay here forever,” he said. “They want to work legally and travel back and forth. For example, their life in Mexico may be better than life in an American city.”
Meanwhile, employers are struggling. Small resort towns are often dependent on international seasonal workers because their population is not large enough to fill all of the suddenly available slots on hotels, restaurants, ice cream shops or ski slopes that serve the hordes of tourists that show up and then disappear.
“We don’t have enough local workers to be able to support the economy as it needs to be in the summer,” said Jane Hess, J-1 visa program liaison for Old Orchard Beach, which To the south is a coastal town. Portland, Maine.
Historically, the city had 650 to 740 international student workers in the summer – including Turkey, Romania and Russia – but Ms Hess estimated there were only 125 to 150 by the end of July. A meet-and-greet in early summer that is usually bustling with activity attracts only a handful of people.
Labor shortages have forced some businesses to limit their hours or close an extra day a week.
In Maine, where the economy relies heavily on tourism and out-of-state visitors, workers on J-1 or H-2B visas typically make up about 10 to 14 percent of the seasonal work force, said Greg Duggal, director of government Cases in Hospitalitymen, a trade group.
But this year, the state will be lucky to receive half the normal number, Mr Duggal said, adding that many people approved for the summer arrived later than usual due to delays in processing.
“The fact is we had a worker shortage before the pandemic,” he said, and “we have a worse worker shortage after the pandemic for the same reason and many other reasons.”
Patricia Cohen reported from Salt Lake City, and sydney amber from Portland, Maine.