Paul Ryan’s GOP Quietly Boosts H-2B Visa-Worker Program

The latest 1,305-page draft House appropriations bill for 2018 uses a bureaucratic trick on page 732 to help employers cut wages for foreign H-2B seasonal workers — and indirectly, also cut wages for American workers.

“Republicans in Congress still haven’t got the message that voters sent last November,” said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for NumbersUSA. She continued:

Americans elected President Trump because they are tired of the elites in Washington being more concerned with big-business profits than with regular American workers being able to make a living wage.  Wages [for Americans] in the top H-2B occupations [landscaping and hospitality] have been stagnant or declining for years, and this bill will make them worse.

Under current rules, employers can only apply for H-2B seasonal workers if they cannot hire Americans for the jobs, and they must promise to pay H-2B workers American-level wages when they ask the Department of Labor for H-2B visas.

The new language would help employers minimize wages for H-2B workers by allowing them to cite the results of skewed “private wage surveys” of local wages. The results of the surveys would be cited in the H-2B request instead of the actual “prevailing wage” rates for local Americans working the free market for labor.

This rule, if adopted, would also hit Americans because employers use their resident population of roughly 125,000 H-2B workers to deflate any bidding war for American seasonal workers. The rule would also hurt Americans because wages for each company’s full-time American staff are informally tied to the wages paid to the seasonal workers.

According to the bill text:

In the determination of prevailing wage for the purposes of the H–2B program, the Secretary shall accept private wage surveys even in instances where Occupational Employment Statistics survey data are available unless the Secretary [of Labor] determines that the methodology and data in the provided survey are not statistically supported.

“Basically, an employer can create a biased wage survey, base the [promised] wage for his H-2B workers on it, and submit the application to the Department of Labor,” said Jenks. “Unless the labor department analyzes every employer’s private wage survey to see if it is statistically valid (which it won’t), the employers can effectively lower wages.”

The process feeds back on itself because lower-H-2B wages reduce market-rate wages for Americans, so cutting the real “prevailing wage,” Jenks said. Also, when companies use H-2B workers to hold down prevailing wages, fewer Americans apply for the jobs — so helping companies claim they can’t find Americans to do the work. “Employers have been using H-2B workers to lower wages industry-wide for years — this lets them do it faster.”

The appropriations committee is chaired by New Jersey GOP Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen.

The legislation also breaks a bureaucratic link, dubbed, “corresponding employment,” which requires employers to pay their American employees the same wages as H-2B workers.

The bill also kills off the “three quarters” rule which forces employers to pay their H-2B workers as if they worked 75 percent of the time. “The three-quarters rule is there because we’re talking about seasonal jobs,” said Jenks.  “So, for example, if a resort brings in a bunch of H-2Bs to clean rooms in the summer, but the rooms aren’t all full all the time for whatever reason, the employer still has to pay the H-2Bs something.”

Congress is being pressured by employers to loosen and expand the H-2B program because President Donald Trump was elected on a campaign promising to end the pro-foreigner policies set by former President Barack Obama. In the last few months, Trump’s deputies have resisted demands by lobbyists and Congress for importing more foreign workers. The process was made clear by a recent Detroit News article about employers hiring H-2B for resort work on Mackinac Island, in Michigan.

… the [policy] shift hurt Mackinac Island, which has depended on foreign workers to fill summer jobs for decades. Businesses need more workers than can be attracted from the fewer than 500 people living on the island and 11,000 residents of surrounding Mackinac County.

The result has meant overtime or no days off for some existing workers and higher prices for vacationers. “It’s been a nightmare,” said Joe Lieghio, whose family and investors own eight restaurants and 28 hotels in Mackinaw City. “They take the jobs that the Americans don’t want.”

Lieghio’s hotels and restaurants this year got 160 foreign employees, or about 60 percent of the H-2B workers they normally employ.

Like many other establishment reporters and outlets, reporter Michael Gerstein did not press the Mackinac employers about their policy of not offering higher wages raises and other benefits to attract young and old Americans who are now working elsewhere in the state.

In addition, Trump’s Department of Justice has fined a company for hiring H-2B instead of Americans,  and Labor Department officials are reportedly asking companies to justify their claims that they need to import H-2B workers.

The H-2B appropriations legislation is overseen by House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has used his power in 2015 and 2017 to dramatically increase the annual supply of new H-2B workers imported by companies and by the labor brokers which rent the H-2B workers to other companies. For example, he and his business-friendly deputies pushed John Kelly, then the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to print up an additional 15,000 H-2B visas in 2017.

Many GOP and Democratic politicians pushed back against the wage-reducing program.

In May, Kelly told a House appropriations committee:

One of the things, and I have my working class root background that keeps reminding me that some of these individuals —not necessarily in Alaska — but many, many of these individuals are victimized when they come up here, in terms of what they’re paid and all the rest of it, so we’re working with Labor, Department of Labor, to come up with an answer to this, but we really do need a long-term solution, so we’ll work with the Senate and with Congress, within the industry, this year, and again, I’ll have my staff when they return from Labor and we get some protocols in place, we’ll likely increase the numbers for this year, perhaps not by the entire number that I’m authorized, but we really do need, I’m really looking forward to working with you Senator, and the whole Congress, to get a longer-term solution to this.

Read more about the H-2B program here.


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