This article was written by Ryan Marshall and originally appeared in the Frederick News Post.
For Dave Tucker, springtime means money. At least he hopes so.
Tucker owns CLIP Lawn Care, a local lawn care and landscaping company, and when spring comes and the grass starts to grow, Tucker needs to hire workers to cut it.
Tucker had sold a previous lawn company, and when he got back into the business with CLIP in 2002, he had trouble finding workers.
He began using the H2B workers visa program, and got a crew of steady workers — mostly from Mexico — that he employed for a number of years.
Last year, his company didn’t get its workers, leaving Tucker scrambling to figure out how to do the 550 lawns the company had been hired to cut.
CLIP laid off an office worker, and when the company didn’t get a good response to ads seeking workers, representatives went to halfway houses and other places to try to find people.
“There isn’t a desire out there for people to do this work, unfortunately,” Tucker said.
The company hired 29 workers, and after less than six months, only two of them were left.
Some missed work because they had court dates or were jailed after violating their probation, while others simply stopped showing up, said Allison Medrano, CLIP’s general manager.
Ultimately, CLIP had to turn down business from about 200 customers because of the lack of staff.
The H2B program allows workers to come to the U.S. temporarily for non-agricultural jobs, to fill spots for which companies haven’t been able to find American workers.
Firms are required to advertise for American workers, but when they place ads, they get no one, Tucker said. Or if they do, applicants don’t show up for the interview or aren’t reliable once they’re hired.
Unlike H2A visas for agricultural workers, H2B visas are capped at 66,000 per year, with half released in April and half in October.
But each year, the number of visas requested far exceeds the number allowed, causing uncertainty for businesses that depend on the program for workers.
Last year, Congress allowed the Department of Homeland Security to issue up to nearly twice as many H2B visas as normally allowed, and in July then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly allowed an increase of up to 15,000 visas through the end of fiscal 2017.
The omnibus spending bill approved by Congress last week allows for an increase of up to 63,000 visas, with the amount to be determined by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
CLIP’s workers interview at the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey, Mexico, where they have to prove that they have clean arrest records and are otherwise qualified, Tucker said.
Medrano sees it as a business issue rather than about immigration, “which is a dirty word right now.”
The longtime workers that CLIP has used have gone back to Mexico and come back each year for almost 10 years, she said.
“These are people who don’t want to live here,” she said.
Landscaping and lawn care companies are one of the main users of the H2B program, said Gray Delany, executive director of the Seasonal Employment Alliance, which works to improve guest-worker programs for non-agricultural employees.
Other big users include reforestation companies, amusement companies such as carnivals, the hospitality industry, and seafood processing companies in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, and Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
There are Americans in those industries, but not enough, and companies tend to get few American applicants, as with CLIP’s experience, he said.
“These employers are having a very hard time finding workers for these jobs,” Delany said.
Maryland’s seafood industry is having trouble finding help for some jobs, particularly shucking oysters and picking crabs, said Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association.
But the H2B program has been criticized by immigration opponents and by unions and others who believe the law drives down wages for U.S. workers.
According to the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports low immigration to the U.S., lawmakers should try to figure out more innovative ways to get more Americans into the workforce, rather than expanding the H2B visa system.
In 2016, then-U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., was criticized by more than a dozen national union leaders for protecting the H2B program for Maryland’s crab-picking industry in a federal budget bill.
In a letter, the labor leaders criticized Mikulski’s support for the program, accusing her of failing to protect U.S. workers from unfair foreign competition for both temporary and permanent jobs, according to The Baltimore Sun.
Tucker dismisses the argument that companies such as his are driving down wages.
The Department of Labor requires that they pay workers in the program at least more than $13 an hour, he said.
Medrano said she’s paying workers $15.50 an hour or more.
The problem is that they can’t find enough reliable, committed American workers, Tucker said.
“It would be so much easier if we could just hire Americans who showed up every day and wanted to do the job,” he said.
With a shortage of willing and able Americans, Tucker’s company relies on H2B workers to be able to function.
Without the program, “we just disappear,” he said.