The federal H-2B guest-worker program has hollowed out small towns in Montana, Idaho, Oregon and other states by sidelining the many young Americans who want to work in the forests and timber industry, says a detailed report in High Country News.
Federal forestry contracts go to the companies which hire low-wage migrant workers, ensuring the wages go to Mexican communities, not into local communities, says the High Country News report.
“With the H-2B crews, it is true that gas, food, lodging, is the only money that is coming into the community — it is like Wal-Mart in that way, there are people working there, but the profits are going elsewhere,” said Jeff Pennick, a former forester who became a federal contracting officer once the forest-maintenance contracts were grabbed by the outsourcing contractors.
The report continues:
In the early 1980s, loving the work was a lot easier [said Thom Sadoski of Sandpoint, Idaho]. “We were pulling down $1,500 a week, $300 a day, easy.” Even on tougher contracts, with harder terrain or bad site prep, the money was still better than on almost any other labor job. “We were a small, tight-knit crew, and we knew how to work our asses off for that 45-day season. … (It was) the best time of my life.”
[Chelsea] McIver echoed the point that the Forest Service, starved by budget cuts and firefighting costs, typically awards multi-year contracts to bigger, out-of-state, low-bid contractors that use the H-2B workers because it has little choice. The agency does not give preference to local crews. That may be more efficient, she said. “But efficiency was only one factor in the equation — what do you tell the people in Mineral County, Montana, about jobs and schools, where it is 93 percent public land, and what work is getting done on those lands isn’t available to anybody who lives there?” …
We can shrug it off as the global free market at work, but there is little doubt that it is hollowing out communities like Pierce, Idaho, and Darby, Montana, and no doubt at all that it is fueling the booming anti-public-lands movement. Lost are generations of young people who take pride in their own strength and abilities, drawing decent wages from the use of muscle and common sense to solve problems and improve their own public lands.
In 2016, Donald Trump’s election pressured House Speaker Paul Ryan to reverse his 2015 expansion of the H-2B program, which is a blue-collar version of the huge H-1B white-collar outsourcing program. The H-1B program keeps a population of roughly 550,000 white-collar outsourcing workers in many professional jobs throughout the United States.
In 2017, a bipartisan group of Democratic and Republicans legislators pressured agency officials to expand the H-2B program from roughly 115,000 resident workers up to roughly 135,000 resident workers. The increase was fought by John Kelly, then the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, but the bipartisan coalition of powerful Senators forced Kelly to back down, despite Trump’s election-day promise to “Buy American, Hire American.”
The H-2B program is one factor in the sharp decline in work-participation by the nation’s blue-collar workforce.
That drop has coincided with the dramatic rise in deaths among sidelined Americans, including deaths from opioids, suicide, and alcohol. American forest workers have the highest suicide rate, according to a 2017 federal study.