Low-Skill Guest Workers Made Average Rate of $12.31 Last Year

Critics opposing expansion of H-2B visa program argue it prevents companies from raising wages

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 14 Jul 2017 at 6:55 AM

As President Donald Trump’s administration considers whether to admit thousands more low-skill guest workers, new research by a Washington think tank indicates that current visa recipients under the program earn low wages.

What’s more, those foreign workers often hold jobs in areas where the unemployment rate among Americans who potentially could do the work is relatively high.

Using data from the Labor Department, the Center for Immigration Studies found that the median wage nationally for visa holders under the H-2B program was $12.31 a hour last year.

The report includes interactive maps.

While the overall unemployment rate is near all-time lows, it was 7.4 percent among high school dropouts and 5.2 percent among Americans and permanent residents who have no better than high school diplomas during the first quarter of 2017.

"The main takeaway is that we have a visa program that brings in tens of thousands of low-skill workers, which is about to be expanded at a time when we have millions of Americans who qualify for these jobs, who are available and not working," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the think tank. "It makes no sense to continue with this visa program when there are so many Americans available."

The visa is available for workers in non-agricultural fields as varied as hospitality, construction, and amusement parks. For fiscal year 2017, the most popular occupation for H-2B workers was landscaping and groundskeeping, accounting for nearly half of the visas. The program allows businesses, after making a good-faith attempt to hire Americans, to sponsor foreigners to fill vacancies.

By law, the number of H-2B visas is capped at 66,000 per year. But Congress earlier this year included a provision that could potentially double the number through the end of September.

The Department of Homeland Security last month announced that it had begun the rule-making process that could greenlight those extra visas.

"I wish they would work as hard thinking creatively to get Americans in these jobs as they do lobbying to keep the program in place."

A number of organizations that favor restrictions on immigration oppose the expansion, as do some progressive organizations.

"We're certainly advocating that they not issue those visas," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "This is a loophole that Congress built into the law … There's no reason for it. There's no shortage of low-skill workers."

Some employers contend otherwise.

This map, produced by the Center for Immigration Studies, shows the geographic distribution of H-2B visas in 2016.

The North Carolina owners of a farmers and seafood market in a resort town on the Outer Banks told the Charlotte Observer last week that they did not open this summer for the first time in 23 years because they could not attract workers even at an hourly rate of $15 an hour and could not get any of the limited H-2B visas.

"It's devastated us," owner Bill Bandy told the paper. "We have a half a million dollar investment just sitting there generating no money. I don't know how to describe it other than disaster."

One of the state's senators, Republican Thom Tillis, has been a strong supporter of permanently expanding the number of H-2B visas. To pressure the Trump administration to expand the FY 2017 numbers, he has held up the confirmation of the president's choice to run the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The Labor Department data collected by the Center for Immigration Studies shows a wide variation from state to state.

Ten states — Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia — had more than 3,500 H-2B visa workers last year. Meanwhile, Hawaii, New Mexico, and West Virginia each had fewer than 250.

More than 90 percent of H-2B workers came from just five countries — Mexico, Jamaica, Guatemala, South Africa, and Britain.

Although the law requires companies to take steps to attempt to hire Americans, critics contend the requirements are not aggressively enforced.

"It is just a show in a lot of cases," Vaughan said.

If the easy option of cheap foreign labor were not available, she argued, businesses would be forced to take steps such as raising wages, offering more flexible work schedules, and assisting with transportation to recruit Americans.

“I wish they would work as hard thinking creatively to get Americans in these jobs as they do lobbying to keep the program in place,” she said.

Mehlman agreed."The $15 minimum wage advocates should be all over this," she said.

An initiative launched in Alabama in May shows that there are alternatives to importing foreign workers to address labor problems. Like other popular tourist destinations, the cost of living is high and the availability of potential low-skill workers is low in the beach communities along the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time, Mobile — a city of nearly 200,000 people about an hour and a half away — has an abundance of youths looking for summer jobs.

The solution, the Youth Empowered for Success Initiative, aims to match some of the 4,000 participants between the ages of 17 and 24 with jobs in the tourism industry. About 100 students received training from the University of South Alabama and are working part-time jobs through the end of this month. The Mobile County Public School System and the Baldwin County transportation agency agreed to provide shuttle service to get the workers to their jobs.

Mehlman said the specifics of that program are outside of FAIR's area of expertise. But he said businesses should be thinking about ways to recruit Americans who need jobs.

"Necessity is the mother of invention," he said. "There are probably all sorts of creative ways they can come up with to find American workers."