New Jersey’s seaside hotels were hiring last year, running ads to recruit dozens of housekeepers. The hourly rate: $8 to $9.
Six Flags Great Adventure in Ocean County also sought help, offering 250 positions starting at minimum wage.
And for those with a skill, other employers were paying more: A Barnegat Township marina wanted a temporary carpenter at a rate of nearly $25 per hour.
In a turbulent economy that forced New Jersey employers to shed 114,100 jobs last year, those positions — and thousands more statewide — were quickly filled. But the workers they hired weren’t laid-off Americans. They came from countries such as Mexico, Romania, Turkey and the Ukraine. How can that be, when U.S. cities have been posting double-digit unemployment rates and more than five workers must compete for every one job opening?
Those foreign workers come here legally for seasonal, nonagricultural employment through something called the H-2B federal visa program. But debate over the program has been reignited as dueling bills in Congress seek to overhaul the program to allow for more workers — or re-examine who is allowed to come here.
“Americans and legal immigrants applying for those types of positions are people who are hurting already, more so because of the economy. Why we want to be giving those people more competition is beyond me,” said David Seminara, a fellow at the nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., who wrote a February report titled, “Dirty Work: In-Sourcing American Jobs with H-2B Guestworkers.”
So a key question remains: Is enough being done to attract American workers to these mostly unskilled, lower-paying jobs?
Pay can vary
Congress limits H-2B visas at 66,000 workers each fiscal year, although it has allowed more in past years as a way to ease labor shortages.
The recession, which led many employers to cut their work force, appears to have had some effect on applications. The number of New Jersey businesses participating in the program dropped from 343 in 2008 to 180 in 2009, a review of U.S. Department of Labor data shows. In that period, the number of certified guest workers dropped 33 percent, from 6,716 to 4,500. The majority of participating employers in New Jersey were landscapers and lawn care services, typically offering about $9 per hour.
But not all jobs paid as low: A Cape May Court House painting company needed painters to work for almost 10 months at $14.34 per hour; soccer camps throughout the state hired head coaches, instructors and trainers for as much as $25 per hour; stable attendants at a horse farm in Monmouth County were employed for $11.22 per hour; and a scallop boat operation in Barnegat Light, Ocean County, requesting five production helpers, paid an hourly rate of $15.10.
To keep wages fair, employers cannot pay foreign employees less than the prevailing wage.
Keith Larson, who oversees that Barnegat Light scallop boating operation, said he does initially receive responses from Americans for the jobs that have gone to foreign workers, most of whom come from Mexico. But those Americans who inquire about the position become uninterested once they learn what work is involved, he said.
“I grew up with this,” Larson, 50, of Barnegat Light, said outside on a recent chilly morning. “I was fishing at 12 years old. But you take the average person that isn’t used to this kind of work, this rocking and rolling back and forth on a boat, they don’t last.”
Wanda Roman, 47 and unemployed, worked as a motel housekeeper, but she has been job hunting for more than a year. At the One-Stop Career Center in Pleasantville, Roman was at a computer to fill out an online application for a cashier position at Dollar Tree.
“I’m not picky,” she said, adding that it wouldn’t be below her to work for minimum wage, which is $7.25 per hour in New Jersey.
So would she take on a seasonal job as a housekeeper, a waitress, kitchen worker.
“Right now, I would rather have a job that I can stay on for more than three months before they fire you,” said Roman, of West Atlantic City in Egg Harbor Township.
Therein lies the problem with filling the abundance of jobs, employers say.
In some cases, Americans may not mind doing the manual labor required. But when choosing between a job that is good for no more than 10 months out of a year or one that is permanent, an unemployed worker will opt for the latter, said Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.
Seasonal jobs “are not that desirable for an adult. No benefits, low pay, temporary work,” Van Horn said. “Even for a young person with a lot of those jobs, the best you can do is break even.”
The Montreal Inn in Cape May, which offers guests panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean, was certified by the Labor Department for 30 H-2B housekeepers last year at $8.25 per hour.
“Most locals are not looking for housekeeping, dishwashing, groundskeeping type of jobs,” hotel owner Larry Hirsch said. “Especially if they’ve been laid off and have been working professional jobs for $40,000 a year. They certainly don’t want to work as a dishwasher for $12 an hour.”
Dan McFarland’s annual salary was more than $50,000 before he was laid off in May 2008 as an assistant district manager for a dining and vending services company. The Mays Landing man recently started a part-time job doing food demonstrations for Sam’s Club, which pays him $10.50 per hour. He would like to find something that pays better, so it doesn’t bother him, he said, if foreign workers are taking low-wage positions.
“My upbringing is Irish-Catholic. My ancestors were (shown) prejudice, and they had to do all those small-labor jobs,” said McFarland, 58. “Just as long as you go through legal channels, it’s OK.”
Raising wages difficult
Critics of foreign-worker programs say employers can attract Americans to the jobs, even seasonal ones, if they pay more — especially in New Jersey, which has the fifth-highest cost of living in the country.
“You have to make $18 to $20 an hour to be a middle-class/lower-middle-class person in New Jersey. That’s a living wage,” Van Horn said. “Eight dollars an hour — that’s not going to do it.”
Businesses say wages are the one cost they can control, and in a poor economy when profits are diminished, having to pay workers more would be problematic.
“Just the cost of doing business has gotten so expensive,” said Denise Beckson, director of operations and human resources for Morey’s Piers in Wildwood, which was last certified for H-2B workers in 2008. “Overhead is astronomical. We’ve seen a 35 percent increase for our health insurance costs alone. So in terms of wages, any increases we were to pay would be passed on to the consumer.”
Morey’s decided not to participate in the H-2B program last year because it had seen a “big surge” in American employees likely affected by the economy, Beckson said. The amusement pier, however, will still use foreign labor through the J-1 visa program, available to students who come here more for the cultural experience as opposed to making money. About 600 of the 1,600 workers hired for the summer will be international students.
“We want to hire as many Americans as we can, but we’ve not seen an increase in professionals applying,” Beckson added. “It’s still the younger people, or a few retirees, who are getting a job because maybe their families are struggling and they want to make some money for themselves.”
Need for reform
Congress has been tackling the need to reform the H-2B program to ensure businesses that truly need the labor can get it, while American workers aren’t shortchanged in the hiring process. Legislation introduced in the Senate in December would strengthen American workers’ rights and require employers to try harder to find local labor.
Another bill, the Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act of 2009, seeks to help employers by keeping foreign workers who have previously participated in the program from counting toward the 66,000 annual cap — therefore allowing more into the country each year.
The bill has dozens of co-sponsors, including U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd.
A spokesman for LoBiondo said last week that he still “strongly supports it” because businesses in southern New Jersey rely on the outside work force to operate.
But U.S. Rep. John Adler, D-3rd, does not support easing cap restrictions, a spokeswoman said.
Seminara, the Center for Immigration Studies fellow, said the federal government should fix the H-2B process first by devoting more time to finding fraud and banning deceptive employers from participating. Immigration officials do investigate such abuses.
In December, owners of the West Chester, Pa.-based International Personnel Resources pleaded guilty in federal court to creating false visa applications. The company would later stockpile the fraudulent visas so that they could bring workers in from Mexico and send them to clients whenever they needed labor. The company was paid $600 to $1,000 per worker.
The agency worked with 21 employers in New Jersey last year, Labor Department records show, including one in Atlantic County.
As part of his study, Seminara looked into the recruitment habits of companies applying for H-2B workers. While employers are required to put job notices in the local newspaper first before hiring guest workers, one company didn’t bother to put its openings on its own Web site.
“A lot of the efforts from employers are purely cosmetic,” Seminara said. “How can you claim you’re making a good-faith effort to recruit when you don’t even put information on your site?”
Employers and job seekers would be better served if the program made it easier for the two to connect, Seminara said. That could include requiring businesses to partner with local work force agencies and union halls that deal with the unemployed and use the Internet to post job listings.
Seminara conceded, however, that some employers will always prefer hiring guest workers.
“A lot of employers have made up their minds that they like these people; they like their (work) ethic, there’s no turnover,” he said. “They’ve decided that the local people in that respect are undesirable.”
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