Stimulus jobs go to foreign workers
Oregon contractors hiring for forest work, say qualified locals unavailable
By Keith Chu / The BulletinPublished: July 25. 2010 4:00AM PST
WASHINGTON — Even as unemployment rates remain high across Central and Eastern Oregon, the state’s forest contractors are importing foreign workers — and using them on federal stimulus contracts that were designed to boost local economies.
The 2009 stimulus law — the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — allows federal agencies to award contracts to companies that use foreign labor on the jobs, even though the measure was largely intended to provide a short-term boost in U.S. employment. Just under $13 million in U.S. Forest Service contracts have been awarded to date to Oregon companies using seasonal foreign workers, according to an analysis by The Bulletin of federal visa and contract records. For their part, the companies importing workers say the foreigners work harder and faster than local applicants and are willing to do jobs the locals don’t want.
That’s cause for anger among many of those firms’ Central and Eastern Oregon competitors.
They argue that they’re being undercut by firms that use foreign labor and say the federal government isn’t doing enough to make sure their competitors are following all the rules.
Darst Atherly, owner of Atherly Contracting in Bend and Burns, said he was outbid by 50 percent on a recent federal contract by a firm using foreign labor.
“I can’t compete with that,” Atherly said.
American companies are allowed to recruit seasonal foreign workers for certain industries, such as seafood sorting and forest work, under the H-2B visa program. According to the Labor Department’s website, a company can recruit workers if it proves there aren’t unemployed U.S. citizens available to do the jobs and that bringing in workers won’t depress wages or worsen working conditions for U.S. workers. The program is separate from the H-2A temporary visas for farmworkers.
There’s nothing new about companies importing foreign workers for low-paying, labor-intensive jobs like forest and farm work. What makes this situation unique is that the federal stimulus bill requires contractors to pay higher wages — ranging from about $12 to $22 per hour for most forest work, what’s known as a “prevailing wage” under the Service Contract and Davis-Bacon acts. Those laws set higher minimum wages for workers on certain federal contracts.
Even at those rates, however, at least eight Oregon forestry contractors this year asked to bring in foreign workers because they were unable to find U.S. labor.
U.S. Labor Department and Oregon Employment Department officials said corporations currently “self-attest,” or sign a form without providing other documentation, saying that they’ve been unable to find local workers willing or qualified for jobs. Several years ago, states had some oversight of H-2B workers, but today the U.S. Labor Department has sole responsibility, said Oregon Employment Department Legislative Manager Rebecca Nance.
“An H-2B employer doesn’t have to contact us like an (employer importing farmworkers) has to,” Nance said. “They can place their own job listing and self-attest to the outcome.”
Labor Department spokesman Michael Trupo wrote in an e-mail that the department audits some applications to ensure they’re meeting federal requirements. When The Bulletin asked to review the visa applications made by five companies that requested guest workers, Trupo wrote in an e-mail that the applications are available only by making a Freedom of Information Act request. The U.S. Forest Service was unable to determine whether complaints had been made against the four Oregon contractors with the most guest workers in a week’s time. Forest Service spokeswoman Valerie Baca did say that contractors must be in good standing when contracts are issued.
According to Labor Department records, the biggest importers of foreign labor were Central Point contractor G.E. Forestry, which received approval for 123 seasonal workers this year; Medford’s Cutting Edge Forestry, with 72; Ashland’s Summitt Forests Inc., with 66; and Ponderosa Reforestation, of Medford, with 39. Combined, the companies have received just more than $10 million in federal stimulus contracts for thinning and removing debris from Oregon forests.
G.E. Forestry office manager Victor Gomez said his company brings in visa workers because they do the job better than locals. A willingness to work quickly, especially, is what sets them apart, Gomez said. Although Gomez said he advertises jobs in local newspapers, few locals want the jobs after he explains the work required. The ones who do usually quit once they realize the amount of effort that G.E. demands, Gomez said.
“(Local workers) do it, but they can’t do it at the same pace; they can’t put out the same work as the other employees,” Gomez said. “They’re pushed to keep up with the other employees, and that’s when they don’t want to do it.”
Because foreign workers are here just to work, Gomez said, they’re often more motivated than U.S. employees.
“I think they’re more motivated for that money,” he said. “They don’t have unemployment to go on. If they don’t work, they go back to Mexico.”
Companies are requesting foreign workers at a time when the state has an unemployment rate above 10 percent; Crook County leads the state, at a seasonally adjusted 16 percent unemployment, and Deschutes is close behind at 14 percent, according to Oregon Employment Department statistics. The forest and construction industry in particular has a glut of unemployed workers, following the implosion of the region’s construction industry. Deschutes County lost 58 percent of its logging, mining and construction jobs between 2007 and this spring, according to the Employment Department.
Mike Wheelock, owner of Grayback Forestry in Merlin, said he used foreign workers in the middle part of the last decade, when the labor market was tight. But now he’s had no trouble finding willing workers.
“Right now, if I put an ad in, I could get anywhere from 200 to 400 applications from local workers,” Wheelock said.
Darst Atherly said he has so many inquiries from job seekers that he doesn’t need to advertise when a spot opens at his firm.
“I get three to five calls a week from people seeking employment, despite having no ads and despite telling people I’m not hiring,” Atherly said.
Overseeing H-2B visas
That has driven Atherly, Wheelock and other forest contractors to complain that their competitors might be skirting labor requirements that companies must advertise for jobs and accept American applicants before seeking foreign workers.
American University law professor Jayesh Rathod, who co-authored a recent report on abuses in the Maryland crab industry’s H-2B visa program, said critics have long questioned how closely the Department of Labor oversees the program.
“I think this is a general area of concern — how closely is the DOL looking at those attestations? Are they checking to see how thorough the recruitment process was, or are they accepting the claim on its face?” Rathod said.
Gomez dismissed complaints by other contractors as sour grapes. He said his company has to follow state and federal labor laws, just as other contractors must.
“I personally think it is just jealousy,” Gomez said.