H-2B guest-worker program under fire over salary discrepancies

With crawfish season just around the corner, Congress’ decision to quadruple the size of a guest-worker program might be described as a gift to Louisiana’s seafood processing industry, which struggles to fill the seasonal jobs each year.

But a recent report from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute says the H-2B program amounts to little more than exploitation.

Although employers and their lobbyists claim there is a shortage of these skilled and semi-skilled workers, wages for the Top 15 guest-worker occupations have remained flat or fallen over the past decade, said Daniel Costa, the institute’s director of immigration and policy research and author of the report. High unemployment rates persist in the top occupations, which suggests at the national level there are no labor shortages in those fields.

“If you look at the seafood wages for H-2B over the past couple of years, they’re all pretty much close to the federal minimum wage,” Costa said.

Congress quadrupled the size of the guest-worker program for 2016, inserting the provision in the 2,009-page spending bill passed in December.

The move angered a number of conservatives, who say House Speaker Paul Ryan had promised immigration reform legislation would wait until 2017.

Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain has spoken in favor of the program on numerous occasions, including testifying before the U.S. Senate in 2015.

“Without these H-2B workers it’s very simple: The crawfish and the other products, they’re just not processed,” Strain said.

According to the LSU AgCenter, about 60 Louisiana seafood processing facilities hire more than 2,000 guest workers each year to peel crawfish and shrimp, shuck oysters and filet fish. Most of the workers come from Mexico and Central America and work 60 hours a week for a few months.

In Louisiana, the top guest-worker jobs include landscaping, packers and packaging, forestry and conservation, construction, and production helpers. Louisiana businesses hired more than 5,500 H-2B workers in 2014.

Strain disagreed with most of the Economic Policy Institute’s report. The prevailing wages in the H-2B program are well above minimum wage, and protections are built into the law to protect the workers’ pay, he said.

The visa program was capped at 66,000 per year, or 33,000 every six months. The federal fiscal year begins Oct. 1, but last year, employers hit the annual cap in January. Seafood processors were caught off guard and had to scramble to find help.

Strain said as of December, less than a quarter of the annual visa total had been issued.

The reason is that the process involved is so laborious, Strain said. In order to hire the guest workers, employers must advertise openings, making them available first to American workers. Only after failing to fill the slots can employers offer them to legal, temporary immigrant workers.

Ben LeGrange, general manager of Atchafalaya Crawfish Processing in Henderson, said the plant typically hires 50 or 60 guest workers a season, mainly women who peel crawfish.

The processing season may last from about March to June, where the crawfish season can run November to July, LeGrange said. The processing time varies from season to season, depending on what’s being produced by farmers and fishermen.

“You really have trouble finding local help because it’s erratic. It’s not a set, defined time period,” LeGrange said.

Without the H-2B workers, the plant wouldn’t be able to keep the handful of full-time domestic workers it has, he said.

David Veal, executive director of the American Shrimp Processors Association, said all the processors really want is a stable program where the rules don’t change from month to month or administration to administration.

The uncertainty makes it hard for processors to plan, he said. Many processors in rural areas have trouble getting a consistent supply of labor, although that may not be a problem in Louisiana, at least this year, because of the oil patch’s downturn.

Maybe 20 percent of shrimp processors’ employees are guest workers, Veal said. The guest workers’ pay is set through wage surveys, required by the U.S. Department of Labor. The surveys are done by someone other than the employer.

In general, the wage surveys result in higher wages for the guest workers and the domestic employees, Veal said.

“It’s to drive wages up, not down,” Veal said.

However, critics like Costa and others, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, say the H-2B program is rife with abuse and is used to undercut pay for U.S. citizens. The Southern Poverty Law Center has described the guest worker program and its systemic abuses as “close to slavery.

Despite the problems, few guest workers are willing to complain because they fear retaliation, said Meredith Stewart, a staff attorney for the center. Employers control the workers’ visas, and people who complain face deportation and being blocked from future employment.

The center has filed a federal lawsuit against Baton Rouge-based R&A Oysters, claiming the company failed to properly pay more than 100 guest workers at its Bayou La Batre, Alabama, processing plant.

The lawsuit says the company never reimbursed the workers for the cost of the visas and travel expenses and forced workers to pay for their own equipment, including oyster knives, overalls, gloves and boots. The result was the workers’ pay fell below the level required by federal law, according to the lawsuit.

R&A Oyster officials could not be reached for comment.

In 2012, guest workers in Louisiana averaged $8.11 an hour for meat, poultry and fish cutting and trimming, the Economic Policy Institute report says. The state average for those professions was $10.20 an hour.

Costa said it wouldn’t be too far off to call the H-2B program “indentured servitude.”

Federal law allows employers to keep the workers’ wages low and prevent immigrant workers from switching jobs, Costa said. The workers, who pay recruiters fees to get the jobs, arrive in debt and can’t complain if their wages are lower than promised.

Strain scoffed at both the Southern Poverty Law Center’s and Costa’s depiction of the guest-worker program.

Federal laws protect the workers, he said. Employers have to pay the workers’ transportation costs, a per diem coming here and going back, house them and guarantee 75 percent of the hours, whether they are worked or not.

“There’s a host of things and costs involved in bringing in these workers. … It is less expensive, at the same wage rate, to have local workers,” Strain said. “These entities would love to have local workers if they could get them. Bottom line is they can’t get them.”

Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr.

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