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Federal rules make it harder to hire foreign workers

Posted on May 9, 2011
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Their jobs are waiting for them. The beds in their apartments are ready. But the eight temporary workers Roger Sturgis hired from Jamaica for his landscaping company are still waiting to get on an airplane.

The owner of Roger B. Sturgis & Associates of Framingham got initial approval in December to hire the Jamaicans through the government’s H-2B visa program, which lets businesses bring in seasonal foreign workers.

But his application has since been tied up after U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of Homeland Security, issued a “request for evidence” that Sturgis said required him to submit two years’ worth of records proving his need for international employees.

“That would have been hundreds of pounds (of papers),” said Sturgis, who is now struggling to find domestic workers to fill his vacant summer jobs. “The frustration is, what do they want? The upshot is, if they do this to other businesses, they’re just going to start hiring illegal immigrants. You go through the proper channels, and you get no satisfaction.”

Sturgis isn’t alone.

Craig Regelbrugge, vice president for government relations and research at the American Nursery and Landscape Association in Washington, said the number of government requests for evidence that are being sent to applicants to the H-2B program and its equivalent for the agricultural industry, the H-2A, is growing.

“It’s far exceeded anything I’ve seen in 22 years,” he said. “The agencies responsible for administering the program seem to be raising many, many more questions, and they seem to be denying applications at an unprecedented rate.”

The H-2B, launched in 1986, is aimed at helping non-agricultural companies bring workers on temporary work visas when no domestic employees are available. The application process, administered through the U.S. Labor Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, requires businesses to complete multiple steps that prove both a need for foreign employees and the lack of any qualified American candidates.

Even after that process is complete, Homeland Security still has the right to submit a request for more evidence. The agency has recently ramped up those efforts, which help protect domestic workers, but Regelbrugge said the government is “essentially absconding from the other half of the equation” to assist companies that rely on the program.

Jane Nichols Bishop, who runs Peak Season Workforce, a Cape Cod agency that helps clients – Sturgis is one of them – file for the H-2B, said many seasonal businesses, such as landscapers, have exhausted all local options by the time they apply to the program.

“People who do not participate in H-2B think it takes away jobs from Americans,” she said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. If they could find Americans to do the jobs, it would be much easier for the employers.”

Sturgis, who has hired Jamaican summer workers through the program 10 out of the last 13 years, said he had little success finding local workers to fill those positions, which pay between $12 and $13 an hour. As part of the H-2B process, he is required to post newspaper and online ads seeking domestic applicants, but he said he usually receives few if any serious responses.

“You talk to 200 people, and you can’t find one who can last two weeks,” he said. “Some can’t speak English. Some wouldn’t show up.”

Sturgis said he won’t hire illegal immigrants, who represent half of the applicants for his summer jobs. Many other local applicants are unemployed and want to be paid in cash to keep their benefits, he said.

“The Jamaicans are hard-working, reliable, appreciative, and they have a very strong work ethic,” Sturgis said. “And they are adults – usually 25 to 40. They have families to provide for, and they can’t find jobs (in their country).”

Sturgis said he doesn’t know why his application would be held up, especially after having no issues with the program before. He said he has submitted some of the materials requested by the government, but apparently not enough to move his application forward.

He is working with staff from Sen. John Kerry’s office to resolve the matter.

A representative from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said he could not get into the specifics of Sturgis’s case.

Paula Grenier, a spokeswoman for the agency’s Boston office, said that, overall, more requests for evidence appear to have been issued to applicants recently.

“We are looking into it,” she said. “We hope to have more information next week.”

In the meantime, Sturgis said he has been unable to find enough qualified local workers to meet his company’s needs. Already more than a month into his busy season, he said he stands to lose $3,500 in daily income on top of the money he has already paid to transport and house his Jamaican workers, who were supposed to arrive weeks ago.

That lost production can be devastating to seasonal industries that depend on a fast start, Regelbrugge said.

“You miss that window, and it’s game over,” he said. “It can be catastrophic.”

Aside from the damage to his business, Sturgis said he is mostly frustrated by the situation.

“Personally, I’d like to get approval immediately for my visas,” he said. “But tell me it’s not going to happen, rather than it being ‘maybe.’ We’re in limbo right now.”

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