2018-05-16 / Opinions

Landscapers miss workers

By TOM EBLEN
Lexington Herald-Leader

LEXINGTON

Eddie Devine voted for President Donald Trump because he thought he would be good for American business. Now, he says, the Trump administration’s restrictions on seasonal foreign labor may put him out of business.

“I feel like I’ve been tricked by the devil,” said Devine, owner of Harrodsburg-based Devine Creations Landscaping. “I feel so stupid.”

Devine says it has been years since he could find enough dependable, drug-free American workers for his $12-an-hour jobs mowing and tending landscapes for cemeteries, shopping centers and apartment complexes across Central Kentucky.

So for years he has hired 20 seasonal workers, mostly from Guatemala, through the U.S. Labor Department’s H2-B “guest worker” program. Importing these workers for a few months cost him an additional $18,000 in fees and expenses beyond their wages, which must be the same as he pays American workers. But that’s the only way he could serve his customers.

Restrictions on guest-worker visas, which began during President Barack Obama’s second term as immigration became a hot issue for conservatives, have gotten worse under Trump. And it’s even more of a problem now that the unemployment rate is the lowest it has been in years.

Devine says he lost a $100,000 account because he didn’t have enough men to do the job. He’s worried he may be out of business next year if things don’t improve.

He isn’t alone. Cuts in H-2B visas are hurting small businesses across the country that can’t find Americans willing to do hard, manual labor: Maryland crab processors, Texas shrimp fishermen, and Kentucky landscapers and construction companies.

“We live and die by these visas,” said Ken Monin, owner of Monin Construction, which specializes in home additions, roofs, decks and garages. “Last year we about went bankrupt. The workers we were supposed to get in March didn’t show up until August because they couldn’t get visas.”

Monin applied for eight H-2B workers this year, but he isn’t optimistic he will get any. Employers seeking H-2B workers must prove they have advertised and tried unsuccessfully to hire local workers.

“Americans don’t want most of these jobs,” said Monin, who pays his workers about $17 an hour. “I’ve been in this business 20 years. It’s hard, hot work.”

Monin said if he doesn’t find enough workers somewhere this summer, he may go out of business, which would cost his three American employees their jobs. Devine and Monin, who also voted for Trump, think the president understands the issue but is politically trapped by the far-right.

At an April 28 rally in Michigan, Trump sounded encouraging. “We’re gonna let them in because you need them,” he said. “Guest workers, don’t we agree? We have to have them.” But his remarks got lackluster applause from the crowd.

The federal government created the H-2 foreign seasonal worker program in 1952. Since 1986, it has been split between H-2A and H-2B workers — agricultural, and non-agricultural. Horse farms can use both kinds, which gives them more flexibility.

Federal law since 1992 has limited H-2B visas to 66,000 a year — 33,000 for each six-month season. The limit has been stretched in the past, and could legally exceed 130,000 this year. But that doesn’t mean it will. Last year, only 15,000 additional visas were issued, leaving many applicants without the workers they needed.

The Labor Department this year has gotten 53,000 applications for the 33,000 first-half slots and more than 97,000 applications for the 33,000 second-half slots.

Many Republicans in Congress, including Reps. Andy Barr, Brett Guthrie and Thomas Massie of Kentucky, have urged the Trump administration to move faster on providing more H2-B visas. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been silent on the issue.

“To have someone playing politics with it when it can only help the economy seems kind of crazy to me,” said Jim McFarlane, owner of United Landscape in Lexington, who is not a Trump supporter.

McFarlane said his company lost money last year because three H-2B workers he applied for never arrived. “At this point, I’m done with it,” he said, adding that he doesn’t know where he will find enough workers.

Devine remembers factory jobs going overseas in the 1990s when he was growing up in Harrodsburg. “Most guys like me would be in those factories if Bill Clinton hadn’t given those jobs away,” he said.

Devine said he believed Trump’s America- first promises. But cutting off a good supply of seasonal foreign labor when Americans won’t take those jobs is only hurting American business owners and the U.S. workers they employ, he said.

These workers aren’t immigrants, and there is no path to U.S. citizenship. When their seasonal work is done, they return home. That’s why Devine thinks the Trump administration’s stifling of guest-worker programs has more to do with racism than economics. “I think there’s a war on brown people,” he said.

But what makes him most angry is that Trump’s properties in Florida and New York have used 144 H-2B workers since 2016. “I want to know why it’s OK for him to get his workers, but supporters like me don’t get theirs,” Devine said.

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