Foreign worker rules affect La.
It’s rare when politicians actually brag they are pushing to keep work wages low for people, but that’s what the Louisiana congressional delegation is doing.
Of course, context is necessary, but Louisiana elected officials in Washington, D.C., are fighting to keep the U.S. Department of Labor from raising minimum wages for certain jobs. They’re touting their efforts.
This is about the federal H-2B guest worker program that offers temporary visas to migrant workers who largely come from Mexico and Central America for seasonal jobs.
In Louisiana, it means roughly 3,150 workers a year coming in for seafood, meat and sugar processing jobs, as well as for the construction, timber and hotel industries. Essentially, these are the jobs that the businesses contend few Americans are willing to take. The H-2B program is limited by law to a nationwide cap of 66,000 visas per year.
The Department of Labor wants to increase H-2B wages through revised calculations and guarantee that most of the wages are paid even if business production is unexpectedly or temporarily cut off. The Labor Department also wants to increase the amount of time required for businesses to recruit American employees.
The goal, which makes sense in theory, is designed to make the jobs more attractive to potential American workers in a nation coping with an unemployment rate of 8.2 percent.
As Labor Secretary Hilda Solis stated earlier this year, “The H-2B program is designed to help businesses when there is a temporary shortage of U.S. workers. The (new) rule … will ensure that the program is used as intended by making these jobs more accessible to U.S. workers and providing stronger protections for every worker.”
But the Louisiana delegation and companies that utilize the H-2B program argue that the planned wage changes are too dramatic and would put plenty of Louisiana businesses in the crawfish processing and other industries out of business for good.
They want to keep most of the pay rates either at minimum wage or near the prevailing industry wage averages.
“We’re just trying to make sure the Department of Labor doesn’t get out of hand,” said U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman. “It would put them out of business.”
Alexander, who is helping lead the effort in the House, said it would be ridiculous to require a business to pay $17 an hour or so to someone planting trees in the forestry industry.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu is on their side as well.
“Some changes in H-2B visa rules do not work for states with seafood industries that are family owned like those in Louisiana, Maryland and Alabama,” Landrieu said in an email response. “During the last few months, I’ve tried again and again to work through my concerns with the Department of Labor to no avail, which is why I voted to block both sets of rules …”
But Landrieu also wants you to know she is in favor of helping the workers too. “However, I’m committed to working with members on both sides of the aisle to root out abuses in the program and find ways to protect workers who come forward with verified allegations of abuse,” she added.
The delegation is quick to point out a March report from the LSU Agricultural Center that contended the planned rules changes would increase wages by 32.5 percent on average across all industries in Louisiana.
“The estimated increase in agricultural processing sector H-2B labor costs would increase by $13 million to $19.5 million per year, depending upon hours worked per week,” according to the report summary. “The estimated reduction in economic activity resulting from this wage increase is estimated to be $40.1 million to $60.2 million per year.”
The politicians argue those numbers would equate to businesses shutting their doors for good.
Currently, amendments are pending in federal legislation in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate attempting to stop the rules changes. Also, the rules are being challenged in federal court in Florida. So, everything, is very much still up in the air.
“It’s kind of in a holding pattern right now,” Alexander said. “But I certainly believe we have a better chance now than we did just a month ago.”
Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate’s Washington bureau. His email address firstname.lastname@example.org.