Employers eager for worker program

As desperate as unemployed Americans are to find work, there are still some jobs that many would never consider applying for because they are seen as too dirty, too demanding or just plain unappealing.

But employers that struggle to fill those jobs — washing dishes, cleaning hotels, caring for the elderly — could soon get help now that business groups and labor unions have agreed on a plan to allow thousands of new low-skilled foreign workers into the workforce.

The deal, which still needs final agreement from lawmakers, is one of the last major hurdles to completing immigration overhaul legislation this year, one of President Barack Obama’s highest priorities. It is expected to be part of a broader measure that would address the status of the 11 million immigrants who either arrived in the U.S. illegally or overstayed their visas.

The new program, called the “W” visa, is crucial for companies like Medicalodges Inc., a Kansas-based company that wants foreign workers to help run its chain of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities and perform in-home care for the elderly and people with developmental disabilities.

“We’ve offered signing bonuses, set up tables in grocery stores, sent direct mail, posted job openings on the Web, even laundromats, and it’s still not enough to fill positions,” said Fred Benjamin, chief operating officer for the company that operates in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

“It’s tough work taking care of people with Alzheimer’s and dementia that may strike somebody or scream at people, may be incontinent, have difficulty getting in and out of bed or need help feeding,” he said. “But we believe there are a lot of people from other countries who would gladly take these jobs.”

The average salary for nursing assistants is $9.50 an hour, while licensed practical nurses with at least two years of college training can earn about $16.50 an hour. But the company says it has little room to increase wages to attract workers because most of the patients they care for receive fixed Medicaid or Medicare payments.

The new W visa program would admit 20,000 low-skilled foreign workers starting in 2015 and could gradually grow up to a cap of 200,000 after five years. The number of visas would fluctuate, depending on unemployment rates, job openings, employer demand and other data.

It would fill a gap in current law, which doesn’t give employers a good way to bring in such workers for year-round positions. The existing H-2B visa program for low-wage nonagricultural workers is capped at 66,000 per year and applies only to seasonal or temporary jobs.

If other temporary worker programs are any indication, most of the foreign workers taking advantage of the new W-visa program would come from Mexico, Jamaica and Guatemala.