Colorado businesses missing workers due to visa shortage

Juan Herrera of Singing Hill Landscape moves mulch around as he works on a park at the Riverdale Dunes community on March 7, 2018 in Commerce City, Colorado. Landscapers rely heavily on the H-2B visa program for peak season help. There were 33,000 visas offered and 100,000 applications. Unlike in prior years, the DOL went to a lottery system. A majority of landscapers won’t get their workers unless Congress passes a fix. Colorado is one of the heaviest users of the program given its seasonal climate.
John Leyba/The Denver Post via AP

DENVER (AP) — Colorado companies in landscaping, construction, hospitality and tourism are getting unwelcome notices that the federal government has denied their visa applications to bring in foreign workers to meet the summer rush.

“We don’t know how we will get the workers,” said Jake Leman, construction division manager at Singing Hills Landscaping, one of the firms rejected. “If we could bring back the guys we had from last year, we would be able to survive and fulfill all of our contracts.”

The Aurora company applied for 40 slots under the H-2B visa program to bring workers from Mexico to handle the surge in business during the warmer months, a request made every year after local hiring efforts fail.

“It is dire,” said Brad Ahl, who helps firms apply for visas as president of Windsor-based Labor Solutions Inc. Historically low unemployment rates and worsening labor shortages across a growing number of industries and states are pushing more employers to seek help outside U.S. borders.

But the cap of 66,000 visas hasn’t changed since the 1990s, and the climate around immigration and the use of foreign workers is politically charged.

“The biggest thing that makes this year different is the sheer demand for visas,” said John McMahon, executive director of the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado.

The H-2B program allows employers to bring in foreign workers temporarily to take nonfarm jobs that can’t be filled locally. Companies must show that they have the means to pay their workers and that the positions pay a competitive wage for such work.

It is divided into a summer season, April-September, and a winter season, October-March. Each season receives 33,000 visas. Normally, requests are filled on a first-come, first-served basis for applicants who meet stringent certification requirements.

The federal government received requests for 82,000 visas on Jan. 1, compared with 24,000 requests that came in on the first day of 2017. In all, more than 144,000 visa requests have come in for the 33,000 slots, McMahon said.

Flooded with a host of applicants this year, the Department of Homeland Security turned to a lottery system for the first time. A drawing on Feb. 28 created winners and losers.

Ahl said he filed at the earliest moment possible, and his clients had all their paperwork in order, which boosted their odds. He estimates that about 100 of the 142 clients his firm assisted in Colorado and 13 other states received a green light. The rest remain in limbo, although he is hopeful they will get a confirmation.

Ahl said he has seen more employers in other seasonal businesses turn to the visa program, and he worries about what is ahead as a larger numbers of baby boomers retire in the years ahead.

Pinehurst Country Club, a client, initially used H-2B workers as groundskeepers, but in the past three years, it added requests for dishwashers, short-order cooks and attendants, Ahl said. Pinehurst received approval for the 32 visas it requested.

Of the 380 applications made out of Colorado, 247 were from employers seeking workers for landscaping or groundskeeping jobs, which represent a $3 billion-a-year industry in the state.

Construction firms accounted for 62 applications, with roofers and stone masons prevalent. Hotels and restaurants had 36 applications, including The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs and the Omni Interlocken in Broomfield.

Landscapers have long struggled to find enough people willing to do hard physical work for what is a half-the-year job. They must pay the laborers they bring in on the visa a minimum wage of $14.21 an hour and offer at least that to local workers. Repeatedly, they find they have no takers, the companies said.

JBK Landscape, an Aurora company that had a visa request for 60 seasonal workers denied, recently advertised for snowplow drivers at $30 an hour and couldn’t find the help it needed, said controller Debra Parker.

The core problem, she argues, is that there is a limited pool of people willing to work seasonal jobs, especially when the market is offering steady work. High school and college students are available only from June to the first half of August, and fewer of them these days are open to physical work.

“If you don’t get your workers, how do you plan on running a business? You have to scale down. You can’t service your clients. You look bad in the eyes of the public,” said Michael Hommel, owner of Designs by Sundown in Littleton, received approval for 40 visas.

Firms applying for visas say workers are brought in to fill jobs that can’t be filled otherwise and they return home when done. But the companies also struggle to avoid getting tied up with the debate around immigration.

“We spend $60,000 or $90,000 a year to bring up workers legally. The guy up the street who hires illegals doesn’t have to pay prevailing wage or the visa fees,” Parker said. The company is out about $10,000 just in the costs associated with filing for the visas that were rejected.

On a per-capita basis, no state is as dependent as Colorado on the program — in summer, for landscapers and construction workers, and in winter, for ski resort and hotel workers.

Vail Resorts, which brings in a relatively small number of skilled cooks and housekeepers during the winter, is among those trying to get the visa limits lifted, said Liz Biebl, a spokeswoman with Vail Resorts Management Co.

“Vail Resorts is involved in several groups that are advocating for rational immigration policies, such as the Colorado Hotel & Lodging Association, the National Restaurant Association, the U.S. Travel Association and the National Ski Areas Association, to name a few,” she said.

Supporters are trying to lift the visa cap under the omnibus spending bill set to come up for a vote March 23. Another bill is seeking to exempt returning workers from the limits, a route taken in prior years when demand exceeded supply.

Although the lobbying efforts are focused on Congress, supporters of H-2B still hope President Donald Trump will show support for a higher cap.

Three Trump Organization properties in New York and Florida hired 163 workers under the H-2B program in 2016 and 2017, according to Vox. But taking a stand in favor would require acknowledging the need for — and the contributions made by — foreign workers in the U.S. economy.

If a legislative fix isn’t found, Leman and Parker said they aren’t sure how they will fulfill their contracts. Smaller and residential accounts are more likely to struggle to get help than large commercial accounts, and the loss of any contracts could put jobs of year-round local workers at risk.

“It would be a bleak year for all of us,” Leman said, “especially when the economy is doing so well.”


Information from: The Denver Post,

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