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Friday, December 8, 2023
Dec. 8, 2023

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UPDATE: Vancouver lawmakers question use of labor on grain silo project

By , Columbian Port & Economy Reporter

Three Washington state lawmakers are raising concerns about the use of labor on a major construction project at the Port of Vancouver, alleging the company involved employed foreign rather than local workers.

Company representatives on Thursday flatly rejected the allegation, saying they’ve complied with all applicable laws.

House Reps. Jim Moeller, Sharon Wylie and Tim Probst — all Vancouver Democrats — say Younglove Construction LLC, an Iowa-based contractor to United Grain Corp., hired about 200 foreign workers under the H1B1 visa program to build a grain silo.

“The H1B1 Visa Program is supposed to be reserved for workers who possess skills that cannot be found here in the United States,” according to the legislators’ March 3 letter to Younglove and United Grain, released publicly by the legislators. “We are concerned that these 200 jobs could and should have been filled by local workers, at a time when local jobs are direly needed.”

Moeller said he first heard concerns from a regional union and labor advocacy group.

Michael Gunsch, president of Younglove, said Thursday the allegation “is totally inaccurate” and that the H1B1 “process was not used.”

In a 17-point rebuttal letter to the lawmakers, Gunsch wrote that the “vast majority of the people Younglove employs on the Vancouver site are workers who were hired locally and who live in the local area.”

The dueling statements concern work on a $72 million expansion of grain-handling facilities at United Grain’s complex at the Port of Vancouver.

The letter from Moeller, Wylie and Probst takes issue with work on a particular piece of that larger project: a towering, 300-foot-plus new grain silo made of concrete and reinforced steel.

The structure was built using the “slip pour,” or “slipform” method of construction in which concrete is poured into a continuously moving form.

It’s the tallest slipform structure in North America, according to port officials.

“It is clear that the construction method used in building this grain silo is a skill that is readily available among workers in our region,” according to the letter from Moeller, Wylie and Probst. They ask for “a record of your workplace accidents and confirmation of Younglove’s worker’s compensation coverage for their employees.”

The legislators ask whether the companies are participating in the state’s warehouse/grain elevator sales tax program, which is used to reduce a company’s sales taxes as an incentive to launch construction projects.

They say they’ll schedule a work session of the House Labor and Workforce Committee “to explore safety issues around ‘slip’ construction and the use of guest workers.”

They also say they’ll “explore with the federal authorities why an H1B1 visa was granted for Younglove to bring in workers from outside of the country, for jobs which local workers could have performed.”

‘Political grandstanding’

There are a variety of U.S. worker visa programs. The H1B visa enables U.S. employers to hire foreign professionals for a specified period of time, according to the website of H1 Base, a company that specializes in U.S. visa programs.

Gunsch, the Younglove president, said the company never used the H1B1 program to bring in a crew of workers to perform the “slipform” construction project. “In fact, Younglove has used H1B1 for only two hires in its entire history — both times for degreed construction engineers,” Gunsch wrote in his letter.

The company also has voluntarily participated in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s E-Verify program for a number of years. The Internet-based E-Verify system is used to determine whether individuals — either U.S. citizens or foreign citizens — may legally work in the U.S.

“Every employee hired by Young-love is required to provide proper documentation demonstrating that the newly hired employee is legally qualified to work in the United States,” according to Gunsch.

Gunsch also took aim at the part of the legislators’ letter that referenced American or Washington state workers who could have done the slipform construction work. The legislators “should be aware that it is illegal and discriminatory for an employer not to hire an otherwise qualified applicant on the basis of either citizenship or residence,” Gunsch wrote in his letter.

Gunsch said his company maintains a stellar worker safety record that exceeds the national average. “Younglove’s own crew has worked approximately 170,000 hours on the Vancouver site with only one minor lost-time accident,” according to his letter.

Additionally, Gunsch went on, “all of Younglove’s employees are covered by worker’s compensation insurance. The Washington Department of Labor and Industries has checked this fact out.”

Tony Flagg, vice president of business development for United Grain, said his company is, indeed, participating in the sales tax program mentioned in the legislators’ letter. It’s allowed under state law, Flagg said, and although he didn’t lobby for it, the incentive makes sense because it encouraged his company to invest in upgrades in its infrastructure.

Flagg said the claims made by the three legislators surprised him, especially because the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries visited the work site last summer and gave everything a clean bill of health. The agency “did a complete investigation and they said ‘no problem,’ ” Flagg said.

The legislators are welcome to further investigate the matter to gain more knowledge, Flagg said. However, he said, the way they’ve handled it “smacks of political grandstanding.”

‘Working for transparency’

In a phone interview with The Columbian on Thursday, Moeller said an investigation by the Labor & Industries department into worker safety “is still going on” and that the agency won’t comment until it has completed its work.

Moeller said if it’s true that Young-love Construction didn’t use the H1B1 visa program to hire foreign workers, then the company should be able to show whether “they’re using workers in this state or in the area.” But if the company did use the visa program, then it should be able to produce the documentation that’s required to justify the hiring of foreign workers, Moeller said.

“I’m just working for transparency,” he said, adding that the construction site is at the Port of Vancouver, which remains public land regardless of the nature of the port’s lease agreement with United Grain.

It’s unclear how big of a sales tax break was granted on the project, Moeller said, and a transparency bill he introduced to answer such questions died in committee.

Moeller said concerns he heard from Roben White, a member of the Southwest Washington Central Labor Council’s executive board, prompted him to send the letter to Younglove and United Grain.

White said Thursday that whether any workers at the site were brought on using the H1B1 visa program in particular doesn’t matter. The question is whether any guest worker program was used and whether local workers were left out. “That’s a fair question,” he said.

‘All we can say’

In his letter responding to the three area lawmakers, Gunsch, the president of Younglove — based in Sioux City, Iowa — said the company has subcontracted portions of the company’s work to about 20 locally based subcontractors with plans to hire “at least 10 more local contractors before the project is complete.”

Meanwhile, he wrote, “the vast majority of materials used at the Vancouver facility have been purchased from local suppliers and local employees.”

He wrote that the company uses both union and merit-shop subcontractors.

Curtis Shuck, director of economic development and facilities for the Port of Vancouver, said that, based on lease negotiations the port had with United Grain last year, the port determined the company’s expansion project “was not a public project” and therefore wasn’t subject to certain bidding issues and prevailing wage rules.

As to what the port thinks of the flap between the legislators and the two companies, Shuck said: “We don’t have any of the details behind this at all. That’s really all we can say at this point.”

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com.

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