CHICAGO — When Ruben Chavez’s landscaping company needed extra manpower this summer to lay patio and driveway pavers, it applied to hire temporary foreign workers through the government’s controversial H-2B visa program.
But the annual cap for such visas had been reached and the application was denied. Chavez estimates his company, based in suburban Chicago, missed $100,000 in potential contracts as a result.
Now Chavez has another shot. Using powers granted it by Congress, the Department of Homeland Security announced in July that it would issue an additional 15,000 H-2B visas for jobs starting before the end of September, on top of the 66,000 permitted annually by law, to employers that would suffer “irreparable harm” without the seasonal help.
Many employers that rely on extra workers for their busy summer months say the move comes too late to make a difference. But Chavez, who was offering $15.30 an hour for six paver layers to work June through November, says he plans to apply for the new batch to try to salvage what’s left of the season.
Many of the green lawns blanketing Chicago’s suburbs owe their mulching, mowing, planting and pruning to H-2B workers, who are brought to the U.S. by employers to fill low-skill nonagricultural jobs they say they can’t find Americans to do.
In Illinois, nearly 60 percent of the H-2B visas certified by the Department of Labor so far this fiscal year were for landscaping and groundskeeping workers, greater than the 45 percent share nationally. Amusement park and carnival workers are the second largest H-2B category in Illinois, though nationally visas for maids and housekeepers take the No. 2 spot.
The contention that Americans won’t do those types of jobs is a source of constant debate that flared again with the announcement of the extra visas, which came during the Trump administration’s “Made in America” week. Even President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla., is seeking to hire housekeepers, cooks and servers through the H-2B program.
But with the unemployment rate highest among less-educated Americans, critics of the H-2B program say employers aren’t trying hard enough to fill these low-skill jobs from the domestic labor pool.
“They don’t require a lot of experience, the pay rates seem decent and certainly we know that there are a lot of teenagers and people in communities without a college degree who are not working,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for reducing immigration. “It would be nice if there were recruiters going after people like that.”
Employers counter that they do recruit locally, but there are not enough interested candidates to meet demand.
Chavez, whose family has owned Yuritzy RC Landscaping for 25 years, said people respond to ads the company posts in garden centers and publications. But once they discover the job entails hours of stooping in the hot sun, they leave to find less grueling alternatives.
“They only last a few weeks and because the work is hard they don’t come back,” Chavez said. Workers from Mexico, where most H-2B landscaping laborers come from, are often used to the conditions because they work on farms at home, he said.
Employers increasingly have been turning to H-2B visas to fill jobs, with companies in Texas, Florida and Colorado among the most avid users. Last year the Labor Department received 143,311 visa requests, a 13.6 percent jump from the prior year.
The visas are designated for seasonal or one-time jobs or to supplement existing staff to meet peak demand, and must offer to pay the prevailing wage for the specific job and location. Employers must attest that there aren’t enough U.S. workers willing or able to take the jobs, and post job ads on the state’s online job board and in newspapers seeking American candidates.
After receiving certification from the Labor Department, they file petitions with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which grants the visas until the cap is reached.
In Illinois, where H-2B usage is moderate compared with other states, employers have requested 2,010 H-2B visas so far in the current fiscal year, which started last October, and the Labor Department has certified 1,878 of them.