The Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board made its rounds on Capitol Hill last week to address an issue that continues to haunt them: H-2B visas.
The H-2B program permits employers to hire temporary guest workers for seasonal non-agricultural work when U.S. workers are unavailable.
The majority of H-2B guest workers are employed in landscaping, construction, food processing and the hospitality industry.
In years past, the problem with the H-2B visa was a cap that the government placed on how many could come into the country. Now labor unions and industry representatives are battling over a proposal by the U.S. Department of Labor to mandate that employers pay the guest workers at a higher wage.
In January, the department issued a final rule revising how wages paid to H-2B workers should rise between 50 and 85 percent in an effort to attract American workers to jobs traditionally handled by temporary immigrant employees.
Louisiana industries representing everyone from the restaurant to forestry industries have filed a suit in federal court against the Obama administration over the rule.
The new mandate will have more impact on seafood processing plants than any hurricane or oil spill, said Ewell Smith, executive director of the seafood board.
“This knocks us out,” Smith said. “We’re out of business with this.”
Labor unions see the new rule as a way to boost American jobs at a time when the nation is facing a high unemployment rate.
“Instead of hiring local people with a 9.1 unemployment rate, they’re hiring foreign workers and they pay wages below the average,” said Gonzalo Salvador of the AFL-CIO. “You have workers earning $3 to $4 less an hour.”
Part of the problem, food processors contend, is that U.S. workers don’t want the jobs, which are mostly seasonal, said Mike Voisin of Motivatit Seafood in Houma. Under the current H-2B rules, businesses must advertise the jobs for 30 days before giving them to a visa holder.
“I would love to hire Americans,” Voisin said. “I love the H-2B workers, they work hard. I want the Americans to do the work.”
The new labor rule prices operations out of business, Voisin said.
“How do you take an 80 or 90 percent wage increase overnight?” Voisin said. “It will just close a lot of small businesses.”
U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, has introduced legislation that would invalidate the new rules by preventing them from going into effect and repealing them if they are enacted.
In Alexander’s district, the forestry industry hires H-2B workers.
“They are not taking jobs,” Alexander said of the guest workers. “They’re filling jobs that others don’t want.”
U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, recently visited Voisin’s operation in Houma and walked away a believer that the rule needs to be blocked.
“It’s a mess,” Cassidy said of the H-2B situation. “The ripple effect is going to impact our state. It’s purely a question of an arbitrary pay scale.”
U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, has been battling H-2B issues since his election because of the impact it has on the sugar industry.
“There are workers that have a certain skill that people locally don’t have and don’t want,” Boustany said. “We’ve got crawfish processors, sugar cane processing, construction jobs and jobs these companies can’t fill and it’s hurt us.”
Advocates for the H-2B program contend that for every H-2B worker employed, another American job is supported. Hitting groups, such as seafood processors, will reverberate through the economy.
“It’s a job killer,” said U.S. Rep. John Fleming, R- Minden, who has a lot of forest industry constituents. “It’s a business killer.”
The rule would require employers to make jobs available to Americans at prevailing wages instead of pay that is near poverty level, said Ana Avendano, of the AFL-CIO.
“It prevents employers from reaching overseas for vulnerable temporary workers rather than providing work for those who so urgently need it here at home,” Avendano said.
A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Wednesday before a federal judge in Alexandria. The rule has been delayed pending the court proceedings.
Gerard Shields is chief of The Advocate’s Washington bureau. His email address is GerardShields@aol.com.