The H-2B temporary worker visa program roller coaster is nothing new in Colorado.
For many in seasonal industries like construction, landscaping and tourism it is an annual ritual. Employers request visas for workers from other countries they need to meet the demand for their services. There are too few visas available for every company to bring in temporary workers. Political pressure is applied. Often, more visas will be approved on an emergency supplemental basis.
“Honestly, it’s just horrendous,” Brian Carlson, the CEO of Lafayette-based Green Landscape Solutions, said. “What I tell people is at this point my business plan comes down to a lottery or luck.”
But 2020 is not just any year — the visa roller coaster has come off the tracks. The H-2B and other programs have been frozen by presidential decree. Whether or not that will mean the hundreds of thousands of Colorado workers who are unemployed amid the COVID-19 pandemic will seek out the jobs normally filled by foreign laborers remains to be seen.
On June 22, President Donald Trump issued a proclamation amending an existing ban on new green cards for foreign nationals outside the U.S. and added a number of temporary worker visas to it. Most H-2B visas for seasonal nonagricultural workers, H-1B visas used in tech, education and other high-skill sectors and even J-1 visas for cultural exchange programs were on the list. The prohibition runs through the end of the year.
The president’s bans are not only impacting landscaping businesses like Carlson’s that are in peak season but stand to reverberate through some of Colorado’s key industries, including winter tourism.
Officials with the Lakewood-based National Ski Areas Association say almost every U.S. ski area employs foreign visa workers during the busy months.
The trade group estimates that 7,000 to 8,000 J-1 visas are tapped by the industry each year, bringing in foreign students on work travel programs to serve as lift operators, restaurant and hotel staffers and as part of mountain operations teams. Colorado hosted more than 11,100 J-1 participants in 2019, according to the U.S. State Department. Not all of them worked at ski areas.
H-2B visa workers are also a major part of the industry labor equation, with many ski areas bringing in ski instructors through the program, National Ski Areas Association spokeswoman Adrienne Isaac said.
“NSAA is concerned about the effect this suspension could have on ski areas this winter as the current order wouldn’t allow for those critical foreign workers to arrive in the U.S. in time for when they are needed most,” Isaac wrote in an email this week.
The president indicated he based his decision to ban the visas on the fact that the country’s unemployment rate was 13.3% in May. That figured declined to 11.1% in June. Still, more than 17.5 million Americans reported being out of work last month.
Trump’s proclamation says allowing more workers in through “nonimmigrant visa programs, therefore, presents a significant threat to employment opportunities for Americans affected by the extraordinary economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.”
An anonymous administration official told the Associated Press last month the freeze was expected leave as many as 525,000 jobs open for U.S. workers.
The H-2A visa program, which brings in workers in the agriculture industry, was left alone. Disruptions to that program could have had dire effects on the food supply chain, said Jason Resnick, vice president of Western Growers, a trade group that represents farmers from California to Colorado.
Trade groups for industries that hire large numbers of visa workers have routinely argued that Americans don’t want the jobs that foreign nationals fill through the programs. In the case of H-2B visas, companies have to seek local help before applying for the lottery to bring in foreign workers.
“The jobs filled by foreign workers are short-term seasonal, corresponding with the high traffic and holiday periods during the ski season,” Issac wrote in an email. “It can be difficult to find housing or uproot your life for a job that may only last three months.”
For Green Landscape Solutions’ Carlson, it’s not just attracting Coloradans to work for his company but getting them to stick around that’s been a challenge.
Carlson’s company offers a starting pay of $17.65 per hour, well above the state minimum wage of $12. Its benefits package includes paid holidays and a 3% employer match on retirement contributions. As a landscape construction company, the work is physically demanding, often involving shoveling gravel, digging trenches and planting trees, something that scares people off, Carlson said.
“It’s not uncommon to have somebody disappear from a job site, or they just won’t show up one morning,” Carlson said. “People would rather go get paid $3 or $4 an hour less and not have to work that hard.”
Carlson has been bringing in workers from Mexico for years to staff up his crews through the H-2B program. It’s the same workers each year. They are familiar with the company’s processes and more capable than new hires. This year, he was anticipating a decrease in demand because of coronavirus. The company was approved for 10 temporary foreign employees but only filed paperwork to bring two of them across the border. Then in April, Carlson noticed demand for landscape design and construction was actually higher than it was in 2019 and filed paperwork to bring in another three workers. Those three workers were called up a for special consulate review in late May that froze the process, Carlson said. Then Trump issued his proclamation.
“We’re in a place right now where we’re essentially sold out for the year,” he said. “Had we gotten those three guys here we could have launched a fifth crew to increase our capacity.”
Carlson has requested as many as 25 workers over a single summer. There was a period when he did not need foreign help: during the country’s last major economic downturn. In the wake of the Great Recession in 2009, 2010 and 2011, “there was so much local help available it was a nonissue,” he said.
There are signs the coronavirus recession could lead to a similar outcome. Seeking to hire for a handful of positions, Carlson posted job adds on Craigslist in English and Spanish and last week got 10 to 15 inquiries, a much stronger response to what he’s used to. He’s curious about what the labor pool will look like after the federal government stops providing $600 a week in extra benefits to people on unemployment, a program slated to end July 25.
When restaurants and hotels across Colorado were shut down this spring either by government restrictions or a lack of demand, some workers from those industries found their way to landscaping, said John McMahon, chief executive officer of the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado. It didn’t last.
“It was a bridge and retention was horrible,” he said.
While McMahon is also curious to see how decreased unemployment benefits impact applications, he is concerned that the freeze on worker visas could continue into 2021, something that could cause a “gigantic problem” for landscapers and other industries.
“At least this year we got some of our workers,” he said.
Ski area operations this winter may look very different depending on how Colorado and the country handles the ongoing pandemic, but Isaac said even if areas open with limited capacity her association isn’t confident they will be able to fill staffing needs without access to visas.
The H-2B program in particular is in need of major reform, in McMahon’s view. The 66,000 worker cap that has been in place for two decades is far too low, he said. If there is a bright said, in his view, it’s that Colorado’s Congressional delegation has worked together in a bi-partisan way to advocate for reforms.
The president’s proclamation does leave the door open for modifications to the visa bans. Select cabinet officials have until July 24 to recommend modifications. Further modifications will be possible every 60 days after that.
U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who has been criticized by Democrats for being in lockstep with Trump on many issues, last week expressed a commitment to fixing problems with visa programs in a statement provided to The Denver Post. The Republican, who is up for reelection this year, did not directly address the president’s 2020 ban.
“Colorado is one of the heaviest users of the H-2B program. Our economy depends on predictable seasonal jobs, and I’ve worked alongside my colleagues in Congress to provide H-2B cap relief to help local businesses struggling to fill these seasonal, temporary job openings,” Gardner said. “I’ve also been fighting for the high-tech H-1B and J-1 cultural exchange programs and will continue to advocate for ensuring our local businesses have access to all of these visas.”
Temporary worker visas programs
- H-2A – for temporary agricultural workers (Not subject to 2020 freeze)
- H-2B- for temporary nonagricultural workers (workers in food processing jobs are exempt from the 2020 freeze)
- H-1B – for specialty occupation workers with at least a bachelor’s degree or equivalent level of education
- J-1 – for people in educational and work-based exchange programs overseen by the State Department