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Shortage of H2B worker visas squeezing Ohio landscapers

By Janet H. Cho • Oct 9, 2018 at 8:00 AM

When George Hohman, founder and president of Turfscape grounds maintenance and landscaping company, filed his paperwork for H2B worker visas this year, he asked for 54 seasonal workers to start in April. But of the 66,000 visas available nationwide, he didn't get a single one.

So he hired dozens of local people, including college students who were only here through August. But once they had a taste of the work — mowing lawns, spreading mulch and pruning shrubs in the heat and humidity — many of them quit. He and his managers joined their crews out in the fields, scrambling to make up for the labor shortage, but some clients grew impatient over missed deadlines.

"We got fired from six or seven contracts in May and June, because we couldn't complete our services in time," Hohman said. "It was devastating, absolutely devastating. It was the first time in 30 years that I was in a position that we couldn't do anything about."

The H2B visa program, designed to let employers hire temporary workers for non-agricultural jobs, has become stricter and more heavily regulated, squeezing many Northeast Ohio landscaping companies who can't hire the employees they need. Businesses that used to get all the workers they applied for now must compete in a lottery for those 66,000 visas.

"It's been a real challenge for our industry as a whole. It's really a shame that when our economy's up and there's a lot of landscaping work out there, that we just can't provide it because there aren't enough workers," said Sandy Munley, executive director of the Ohio Landscape Association.

Landscapers are the largest users of H2B visas, but the program also supplies workers for hotels, resorts, ski resorts, golf clubs, amusement parks and seasonal needs such as the Maryland crab industry.

Although the visa cap has been 66,000 since 1990, "the demand for H2B visas is higher than it's ever been," Munley said. On Jan. 1, the first day companies could apply for the 33,000 visas for workers to start on April 1, the Office of Foreign Labor Certification received 4,500 applications for more than 81,600 jobs, and that number continued to grow, she said. Another 33,000 visas were issued for the second half of 2018, but those, too, were quickly claimed by employers who didn't get visas in the first round.

Michael Bars, spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which works with the Department of Labor to administer the H2B visa program, said: "USCIS is committed to upholding our nation's immigration laws, helping ensure they are faithfully carried out, and safeguarding the integrity of our immigration system designed to protect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers. As such, the administration has been relentlessly pursuing merit-based policy and regulatory immigration reforms, including a thorough review of employment based visa programs so they benefit the American people to the greatest extent possible in fulfillment of the President's Buy American, Hire American Executive Order."

immigration attorney Erin Brown, a partner with Robert Brown LLC in Cleveland, said: "We've definitely seen big changes in the limited number of new H2B visas that are issued. In 2017, they [Congress] did away with the returning worker program," which let employers bring back workers who were not counted against its visa limits. Canceling that program worsened the labor shortage just as demand for landscaping services were soaring.

Instead, Congress passed a bill allowing "up to 69,320 more visas at the discretion of the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consult with the Secretary of Labor," Munley said. On May 25, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielson announced that only 15,000 more visas would be released - 54,320 less than the number requested by both agencies.

But for landscapers like Twinsburg-based Turfscape, it was too late in the season to compensate for all the business they had lost or had to turn down because of too few workers.

Brown said the process isn't easy: Employers have to submit an application to the Labor Department, show that they have tried to hire American workers first but that there weren't enough who want the jobs. Even if they find some, they typically don't last in those jobs, even though the pay starts at $13.10 an hour (nearly $5 an hour higher than Ohio's minimum wage of $8.30). Once they are certified, the companies apply to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for the visas, although they are not guaranteed to get any.

H2B visas provide badly-needed labor for U.S. employers from workers who cross the border with legal, short-term work visas. "I look at this as a solution, not a problem. If there is a way to use a legal process and have people come in that are very well vetted, I'd rather have people employed this way, for a specific length of time," Munley said. The program is closely scrutinized, and "if they don't follow the rules, they can't come back again."

Munley said the Ohio Landscape Association regularly goes to Washington, D.C., to talk to legislators and ask them to increase the number of visas. "The way the system works now, even if you qualify [for the workers], you either get them or you don't get them," regardless of what projects you may have planned. "There are some things that are just done in the spring, and if you miss that window of opportunity, you can't always get it back. You can't landscape into the winter."

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman's spokeswoman Emily Benavides said: "Rob supports the H2B visa program and has been pushing the Trump administration to use the authority granted to DHS to issue H2B visas above the cap." Although issuing an additional 15,000 H2B visas was a step in the right direction, Portman "would like to see more H2B visas issued in a safe and secure manner."

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown's office said he believes this visa program should be examined as part of an overall fix to our broken immigration system. "He understands that some employers have a legitimate need for seasonal workers, and he also believes reforms are needed to make sure these programs are structured in a way that doesn't bring down wages for all workers," spokeswoman Jennifer Donohue said via email.

Local landscapers say the visas have become needlessly political amid a national discussion of immigration and border patrol.

When Matt Angelotta, owner of Angelotta Landscape Associates LLC in Chesterland, didn't get any of the 10 visas he had applied for, "I cut back, I got rid of work, and everybody worked a lot of overtime." Last year, he asked for 10 visas and didn't get the workers until August. "I've survived and I'm fine, but I'm not making what I'm supposed to make."

He has already started applying for next year's visas, anticipating another months-long vetting and approval process. He is offering $13.50 an hour to start.

Joe Schill, founder and president of Green Impressions landscaping and design build in Sheffield Village, has used H2B visas for about 15 years, and hired 14 workers last year.

"We're short nine guys right now; Nine guys times 40 hours a week is 360 man-hours a week," he said. "We are on pace to basically break even and potentially lose money this year. The amount of work I have to turn down every day because we can't service people, it's heartbreaking. We're probably in terms of revenue around $400,000 behind our 2018 goals.

"We're cutting back on buying small equipment. Maybe I've got to quit spending money on marketing. Maybe scale operations back and start cutting American jobs. I spent $150,000 on three brand-new trucks and trailers sitting in my back parking lot with nobody to drive them," he said.

"Maybe next year I'll get my guys, and the people that got them this year lose their guys. It literally is the luck of the draw," Schill said. He is offering his employees a $300 referral bonus for every local person they bring in who gets hired.

Matt Supler, vice president of New Vista Enterprises landscape design and construction company in Cleveland, said that what was the easiest process in the world five years ago has now become nightmarishly complicated. He would fill out the paperwork for workers to start on March 1, and within 24 to 48 hours, they would cross the border and be in Ohio.

"Last year, they were about three weeks late [arriving in Ohio] - and we were one of the lucky ones. I have friends who just got their guys in August," he said. "Springtime is always the most stressful time for us, because you have no idea if you're going to get your guys or not."

"You used to be able to get everyone you wanted, year after year after year. When one guy didn't want to return, we could always get another worker right away; his brother, cousin or uncle. Now, the biggest problem is getting them and getting them when you need them.

"In 10 years, I've had probably two phone calls [from people interested in landscaping jobs], both of which we hired," he said.

"Two years ago, we went to some of the guys and said, 'We're going to just get you guys green cards.' Because honestly, it's easier" to keep good workers employed full-time, year-round than to depend on a system that's become increasingly less reliable as a source of labor. "When you have millions of dollars in contracts and a quarter of your workforce is not there, it really hurts."

Hohman's Turfscape has been in business for 30 years and has used the H2B visa program to supplement its workforce for 18 years.

"This isn't something that's just affecting Northeast Ohio; this is industrywide, across the country," he said "There are hundreds of landscaping companies that are in the same boat. In the past 15 years, I probably have been down to Washington, D.C., over 20 times. Most of them are sick of hearing from me.

"I was at a roundtable with President Trump about three weeks ago. He said his companies use the program, and he was going to try to help. But I've followed up, and we haven't heard anything since."


H2B visas for temporary foreign workers

What: Created by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, H2B visas admit nonimmigrant foreign workers to the U.S. for temporary nonagricultural labor with certified employers. The Department of Labor grants labor certificates only after determining that not enough U.S. workers are qualified and available for the jobs, and that hiring foreign workers will not hurt wages or working conditions for U.S. workers.

Administered by: U.S. Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration and Wage and Hour Division.

Website: https://www.uscis.gov/working-united-states/temporary-workers/h-2b-temporary-non-agricultural-workers


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