Concerns About The H-2B Visa: How The Landscape Industry Is Handling It

Concerns About The H-2B Visa: How The Landscape Industry Is Handling It

The landscape industry has been increasingly struggling to retain seasonal employees over the past several years. Fueling this problem has been the recent instability of the H-2B Visa Program, which many landscape companies rely on to supply a sufficient number of laborers during their most demanding months. In this article, we will explore the current labor issues the landscape industry is facing and how companies are trying to cope with a shortage of workers.

What is the H-2B Visa Concern?

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the H-2B program “allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents…to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary nonagricultural jobs.” It is through this program that many landscape companies hire seasonal employees to provide labor during their spring and summer seasons.  

Some aspects of this program are currently stalled in Congress, making many landscapers nervous for the upcoming seasons. The H-2B program has a cap of 66,000 accepted beneficiaries (33,000 per half fiscal year) per fiscal year. For the 2018 FY, the cap for the first half was met on December 15, 2017 and the cap for the second half was met on February 28, 2018. This is the earliest these caps have ever been reached by a significant number of days, demonstrating the high demand for seasonal laborers. Prior to 2016, workers who had previously been employed via the H-2B Visa were exempt from this cap, but when the federal budget bill recently expired, the cap exemption expired as well.

For the landscape industry, the inconsistency and caps of the H-2B program could have a detrimental impact. “It’s extremely disappointing,” expressed Paul Mendehlson, VP of Government Relations for the National Association of Landscape Professionals. “It means that a number of our members are going to have to lay off full-time American employees and cut back on contracts.” (Source) Joe Drake, President of J.F.D. Landscapes, told Fox 8 in Cleveland, “This lack of labor is going to decide whether we grow, survive or close.” Mid-level managers who depend on having workers to supervise are expressing nerves about the lack of labor, as well. Matt Drda of Morton’s Landscaping also told Fox 8, “If I didn’t have that group of guys that work on my side year to year, I’m out of a job.”

How Are Landscapers Handling It?

Landscapers are often asked, “Why don’t you just provide higher wages so that American workers will want these jobs?” Ken Thiergartner of Brookside Landscape responded to this common question, “We hear that story a lot. It’s a misconception. We start everyone out at $13.10 an hour, almost double what [the] minimum wage is.” Unable to raise wages, landscapers are forced to get very creative with labor attraction and retention. Check out what some landscape companies are doing about it:

Recruitment from Puerto Rico

Clay Martin, owner of Martin Recruiting and Consulting, organically came across an interesting alternative to the H-2B program for the landscape industry. Martin has built his recruiting company on finding candidates specifically from Puerto Rico to join the landscape industry. Since Puerto Ricans are American citizens, there are no extra authorizations needed for their employment. Many Puerto Rican residents express a need for these jobs, similar to the guest workers of the H-2B program. By bridging the gap between landscapers and this particular group of laborers, landscape companies can receive the workers they need while the issues with the H-2B program are deliberated. Read on for our findings on this research here.

Work Opportunity Tax Credits

The U.S. Department of Labor offers work opportunity tax credits to companies that hire “disadvantaged” workers. Some landscapers are utilizing these tax credits by hiring veterans, individuals from families that receive food stamps, Summer Youth Employees, people who live in Rural Renewal Counties and more. By hiring these categories of employees, landscapers provide labor opportunities to those in need, and the DOL pays the landscape employer a small percentage for each hour the employee works.

Military Recruiting

Many landscapers have reported that, with the lack of laborers they can employ through the H-2B program, they have been recruiting returning military members with success. These returning service members have stepped into temporary and seasonal positions, and even professional level positions depending on their qualifications. Landscapers who are interested can contact their local military base and inquire about “delayed entry” military members who may available for work while waiting to be deployed.

Trade Schools

Local trade schools present another opportunity for landscapers seeking to overcome the labor shortage (Source). Federal- and state-funded trade schools provide relevant trade programs (i.e., engine mechanics, irrigation, construction, plumbing and others) for students who may not be financially able to attend a four-year school. Many of these students are available to work regular business hours as they attend weekend or night classes. While not only providing a temporary solution to the H-2B Visa concern, building a professional relationship with a local trade school could help create a labor pipeline for your business in the future, as well.

Referral Incentives

One company in New Jersey, Borst Landscape Design, has begun offering referral incentives as a new solution for finding employees. “Borst provides a payout to employees who refer someone to the company; one bonus on their referral's first day and another if they stay for three months.” (Source) While the risk remains that these new employees may not stay long, thus far, this idea has increased their reach to potential employees.

What Does the Future Hold?

This is the question all landscapers are asking, and it is the one with the foggiest of answers. While no one can predict exactly what will happen to the H-2B program, the stalemate in the federal government over this program and other “immigration issues,” as some classify it, suggests that this program may not change anytime soon. The system is “dubious at best,” says Bill Arman of The Harvest Group, a landscaping business consulting firm, “and I believe that…you have to be prepared for H-2B not to be around. We’re saying you better have options B, C and D on deck.” While this may be a gloomy outlook for landscapers, it is inspiring landscape companies to work together to find common solutions to the labor shortage like those listed above.