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Foreign workers again limited for summer industries

Foreign workers again limited for summer industries

Demand from landscapers, horsemen, hospitality industry far exceeds supply of H-2B visas
Foreign workers again limited for summer industries
Frederick Stephenson of Jamaica picks apples at Knight Orchards in Burnt Hills on Sept. 13.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

Some employers who depend on seasonal labor are in a bind again this year as they look toward the start of their busy seasons.

Landscapers, resort owners and horse trainers, for a second year in a row, are facing sharp limits on the importation of foreign workers under the H-2B visa program. At the same time, the economy is strong enough that local workers can, and in many cases do, opt against taking jobs that promise hard work for several months and a layoff notice come autumn.

Saratoga County Chamber President Todd Shimkus said he’s hearing concerns about the impact of a possible labor shortage on the local economy.

“I spoke with our friends at the U.S. Chamber earlier today,” he said Tuesday. The hope, he said, is to get provisions for additional visas included in the omnibus spending bill working its way through Congress now.

To the north, Amanda Metzger of the Lake George Chamber of Commerce said that agency also has heard concerns, particularly among the area's many tourism-related businesses.

“It looks like it’s a similar problem as last year,” she added.

Shimkus said the labor shortage has an impact on a variety of industries, including hospitality, landscaping and horse-racing.

The common thread, said Randy Countermine, owner of New Dimensions Outdoor Services in Gansevoort, is that it’s physically exertive work that doesn’t last through the whole year.

New Dimensions has been participating in the H-2B program for 17 years and has come to rely on it. Last year, he didn’t get to import workers until well into July, scrambling his planning process and forcing him to turn down some jobs. This year, he sought 15 visas and, unless the visa limit is lifted, is getting none.

Workers for New Dimensions would have earned $14.77 an hour, or $21.48 on overtime. The Latin-American temporary workers will be happy to get that money, work hard every day, and go home, Countermine said. By contrast, the Americans he hires will often decide that mowing lawns for 55 hours a week in summer heat isn’t what they want out of life and start skipping days or quit after a few weeks, he said.

“Today’s generation has a different attitude about manual labor,” he said. “It’s not about the dollars, because we pass those costs to our consumers; it’s about finding people that will be consistent.”

The problem with the H-2B program is that it became a political football, he said. The limit was set at 66,000 visas in 1990 and never increased as the economy grew in subsequent years. Then, in 2017, a key provision was allowed to expire. In the past, a non-American who held a visa in the previous year was issued one in the current year, and those visas didn’t count toward the quota. 

Countermine had several workers who returned year after year through the provision.

Come 2018, demand was so strong that the bulk of employers submitted their requests on Jan. 1 — the earliest possible date — and many were still denied because others hit the button faster. 

Countermine was among those who were left out.

“People look at it as an immigration issue,” he said. “It’s not an immigration issue. These [workers] want to work here and go back. That’s why this program has worked so well.”

New Dimensions had a high attrition rate among seasonal laborers in 2017, Countermine said. Only two are returning this year, and he’s looking high and low for others.

He conceded he might get more applicants and more commitment from employees at, say, $20 an hour. But he said he’d also lose work to competitors, and he’d still have a bunch of people to lay off right before Christmas.

Two weeks short of springtime, Countermine is not giving up hope for getting some visas this year.

“Right now, as it stands, New Dimensions is out of luck, but we’ve been working very hard in Washington.”

He said there are many more like him, and they’re all pushing for a change in the H-2B program.

“I truly believe we'll get some resolution; I just don’t know how much carnage there’ll be.”

The tourism season in the Lake George region relies just as heavily on seasonal labor as landscapers do.

One businessman there, Dave King, president and CEO of Lake George RV Park, said he’s in the same boat — scrambling for workers.

“Just in the last week we received notification we won’t receive any workers because the visas were all handed out,” King said.

He criticized the way the issue has been handled in 2017 and 2018, with eleventh-hour, one-year fixes.

“It’s a subject that a lot of congressional representatives do not want to deal with,” King said. “Yet our seasonal businesses are absolutely in a frenzy mode.

“The whole thing is a mess,” he said, though he also credited U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Willsboro Republican, for trying to help.

“It’s so discouraging to me,” King said. “A lot of people think my workers are illegal just because they’re Mexican.”

His H-2B workers show up every day, work hard, pay Social Security taxes they’ll never get back, then go back home to their own countries at the end of the season.

King’s H-2B workers would have gotten just shy of $14 an hour regular pay this year, or $21 per hour on overtime. 

He expects to advertise $16 an hour to attract local applicants and build out his workforce, which is eight permanent workers and 40 temporary.

His last season without H-2B workers was seven years ago and it was problematic, with people calling in sick and quitting before the autumn season ended.

“It doesn’t matter what we pay them, it’s not about wages,” King said. “You’re outside all the time in the elements. You’re out in rain and wind and snow in the shoulder seasons.

“We’re trying to survive as a seasonal business, is what it comes down to,” he said.

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