By Joe Guzzardi
June 10, 2016
Less than a week after the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that a meager 38,000 jobs were created in May, the Senate debated whether a bill that includes more visas for foreign-born seasonal workers should go forward.
The visa is the H-2B, and its leading proponents are North Carolina and Maryland Senators Thom Tillis and Barbara Mikulski who claim that a labor shortage in the crab picking industry makes it essential that more workers be made available immediately. While Tillis and Mikulski lead the charge for more seasonal workers, other senators have joined the fray and insist that their states’ seasonal businesses in tourism, amusement parks, landscaping and restaurants cannot recruit sufficient staff to operate effectively. But what small business owners really mean is that they’ll be more profitable if they can hire and exploit foreign labor.
Last year, Mikulski inadvertently confirmed the greed variable in her letter to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez wherein she adamantly demanded that employers not be required to pay overseas workers the prevailing American wage as the visa requires. Mikulski reiterated the age-old, misleading allegation that paying fair wages would drive seasonal businesses to failure.
Mikulski spearheaded a successful effort to count only new H-2B visa holders as part of the 66,000 cap. Workers who are rehired from the previous year aren’t counted in the cap which means that many more than 66,000 H-2B visa holders are in the labor market.
Year after year, immigration advocates and the mainstream media repeat the labor shortage claim and predict dire consequences, such as crops rotting in fields or bankruptcy, despite little evidence that these claims are valid. Landscaping provides a good example. In 2014, 30,000 H-2B visas were issued even though, according to the Economic Policy Institute, unemployment among landscapers was twice the national average.
And the restaurant industry, lobbying hard for more H-2B visas, represents perhaps the most shameless example of excessive greed. For tipped workers, the federal minimum wage, unchanged since 1991, is a shockingly low $2.13 an hour. And including tips still doesn’t get restaurant employees to a living wage, as another EPI analysis proved. Including tips, mostly earned at high-end restaurants in tony neighborhoods, the median hourly wage is about $9.25 an hour. That makes tipped workers twice as likely to fall under the federal poverty line, and other restaurant workers three times as likely.
In his column in the American Prospect, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Nick Hanauer called the restaurant and similar industries that strive to pay the lowest possible wages the “parasite economy” in which millions of Americans remain among the working poor.
Congress created the H-2B visa in 1986 as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. Ever since, the Chamber of Commerce, labor brokers and immigration lawyers have actively promoted it with a single goal in mind: boosting profit margins for employers. In 2014, the Labor Department found fraud and other abuses in the H-2B visa program, yet banned only a small handful of companies from participating.
Historically, the solution to labor shortages is to offer higher wages, not import labor. But since federal enforcement of the H-2B is rare, and the lobbying money to sustain the visa is enormous, more than $1.5 billion since 2008, American workers pay a heavy price – fewer jobs.
Joe Guzzardi is a Californians for Population Stabilization Senior Writing Fellow. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @joeguzzardi19.