America’s guest-worker program for low-skilled workers is premised on the argument that businesses cannot find American workers for some jobs, but a LifeZette analysis of wage data suggests companies use it to save money.
LifeZette previously reported that U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicated that wages have grown more slowly over the past decade for most of the occupations in which employers most frequently use low-skilled guest workers. Experts said that undermines the argument of a worker shortage, since a shortage should produce rapidly rising wages as employers increase pay to attract scarce workers.
LifeZette followed that analysis with an examination comparing the average wages employers offered to H-2B visa workers with the average wage all workers earned in those same occupations.
The data recently released by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for the fiscal year that ended September 30 show only the offered wage, not the actual salaries for the smaller number of guest workers who received visas. But the statistics show a clear trend — in eight out of the 10 occupations with the most certified H-2B workers, wages were lower for guest workers than all U.S. workers. Wages were essentially the same for waiters and waitresses, and guest worker restaurant cooks actually made a little more than their American counterparts.
[lz_table title=”The Guest-Worker Discount” source=”USCIS, Bureau of Labor Statistics”]H-2B visa wages* compared to all workers
Forest & Conservation,-23.8%
Maids & Housekeepers,-5.7%
Amusement & Rec.,-13.8%
*Average pay offered by employers per occupation.
“The bottom line is, the only piece of evidence we have of a shortage of workers in low-wage occupations … is the testimony by businesses and their executives,” said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies.
Guest-worker advocates argue that businesses have no choice but to look abroad for labor because it is not available in the United States. States-rights advocate Adam Freedman this month argued in a Washington Examiner op-ed that each state should be able to determine its own guest-worker limits. He wrote that America’s guest-worker programs are “woefully inadequate” and “saddled with cumbersome procedures” that discourage employers from sponsoring the visas.
“The economy’s demand for labor exceeds the current supply of legal migrants,” he wrote.
But Camarota said evidence for that simply does not show up in wage and salary statistics.
“How could it be that employers are in such a desperate situation that they have to turn to foreign workers when they’re not paying more?” he said. “It’s absurd on its face.”
The disparity varies widely from occupation to occupation. Companies offered 7.4 percent less to H-2B landscaping and groundskeeping workers — by far the most common occupation in the program — than to U.S. workers. The foreign-worker discount was 3.9 percent for laborers and freight, stock and material movers. It was 23.8 percent for forest and conservation workers.
The law ostensibly requires companies to make a good-faith effort to hire U.S. citizens and legal residents first, including advertising in two different venues and paying the “prevailing wage” to guest workers. But critics of the program question how rigorously those requirements are enforced.
“In those industries that most widely use [the H-2B visas] … wages haven’t grown,” said Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism at NumbersUSA.
Chmielenski said importing workers to fill shortages in critical industries might be justifiable in some areas. But many of the jobs filled by guest workers do not exactly qualify as critical, he said. He said laborers in the largest category — landscaping and groundskeeping workers — mostly work to beautify resorts, golf courses, and other playgrounds for the well-off.
“The employers are trying to get cheap labor to make these places look nice for them,” he said. “Is that worth bringing in foreign workers to drive down the wages of American workers, to make a gated community look nice?”
Chmielenski said some super-wealthy resort areas might have trouble finding workers to take low-wage jobs. But he added that not far from many of those places are areas with people who likely would want the jobs. He cited the proximity of West Palm Beach to Palm Beach in Florida as an example. But businesses probably wonder why they should bother trying to recruit those potential workers when they can get foreign workers and pay them less, he said.
“It’s a corporate welfare program, and it’s Americans with less education that have to pay the price,” he said.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported in May that Ironworkers Local 512 in St. Paul complained that a South Dakota construction company, Genuine Builders Inc., had hired H-2B workers rather than willing American workers for a project in Minnesota.
“We got workers right here in Minnesota ready and willing to go to work for you. Give us a call anytime,” Nate O’Reilly, a business agent for the union, told reporters at the time.
The newspaper reported that Genuine Builders had requested more than 250 guest workers for Minnesota sites since 2013. That year, the company paid more than $180,000 for several violations of labor rules and H-2B requirements, according to the paper.
Camarota, of the Center for Immigration Studies, said the result of shutting off guest workers might be bad for employers’ bottom lines. But he said that lifting wages that have been stagnant or falling in real terms should be a public policy goal. And U.S. workers are available, he added.
“We have a record number of less-educated people not working in the United States,” he said. “We want jobs at the bottom end of the labor force to pay more.”