Opinion

I run a landscaping business. We need more foreign workers.

Ruben Lugo from Mexico mows grass on the grounds of the DeVintage subdivision in Cary, NC on April 19, 2017. He is here on an H2B visa, which is for seasonal work. He works for Greenscape, Inc., a Raleigh landscaping company. N.C. Sen. Thom Tillis wants to expand the program.
Ruben Lugo from Mexico mows grass on the grounds of the DeVintage subdivision in Cary, NC on April 19, 2017. He is here on an H2B visa, which is for seasonal work. He works for Greenscape, Inc., a Raleigh landscaping company. N.C. Sen. Thom Tillis wants to expand the program. cseward@newsobserver.com

Late spring and summer is the busiest time for Greenscape, the Holly Springs landscaping company my father founded in 1979, and which I’ve run for the past nine years. The revenues we earn, servicing landscapes all over the Triangle and as far as Wilmington, are crucial to our business, letting us buy the equipment needed to win new contracts, and allowing us to keep our 150 American employees secure in well-paid, year-round jobs.

During the frantic summer months, we also rely on about three dozen seasonal workers. Without these extra hands, my company simply cannot handle the demand. But there’s a problem: Even though starting positions pay $14 an hour, it’s virtually impossible to find the number of local workers needed to meet the demands of our customers, especially in our sweltering N.C. heat. I don’t blame them, but to stay in business, we have no choice but to hire a crew of laborers from Guatemala and Mexico.

They come here under the H2B visa program, which was designed to help seasonal businesses like ours to plug short-term labor gaps. They’re carefully vetted, at our expense, and because they know they can come back year after year, they play by the rules and return home when the season ends. They’re hard workers, and I couldn’t imagine what I’d do without them.

This year, unfortunately, I found out.

For years, the H2B guest-worker system has been strained to the bursting point. Twice a year, the government releases 33,000 visas, which are immediately snapped up by landscapers, seafood packers, carnival operators, hotel owners, and other employers. There aren’t nearly enough visas to go around, though, so the system has turned into a lottery: Some companies get the workers they need, but others are left high and dry. This year, Greenscape was left stranded.

With no laborers to work the summer rush, I knew I’d have to cut costs. I refused a $400,000 contract and was on the verge of laying off American workers when I had an idea. Puerto Ricans left jobless by Hurricane Maria could be my stopgap, because they didn’t need visas to work here. I sent a team to San Juan, and within days they’d found 30 workers willing to come to North Carolina for the summer.

They’ve been here since May, doing the jobs our H2B workers usually do. Just like our H2B workers, they traveled here at our expense, and live in housing that we provide. And just like our H2B workers, they’re earning money that helps their communities, while paying taxes and supporting local businesses here in North Carolina.

I love that in some small way we’ve been able to help in Puerto Rico’s recovery, and I’m relieved that I found the workers I needed to keep my company operating this summer. But using Puerto Rican labor is not a lasting solution. Once the island is rebuilt and they can find employment again, they’ll have far less reason to travel here in search of work. To sign new contracts, and ensure stability for my year-round workers, I need a predictable source of seasonal labor.

According to New American Economy (a group of business leaders and mayors), every H2B visa that’s issued creates 4.64 jobs for American workers. That’s been my experience: Greenscape could be doing far better, and creating more well-paid jobs for Americans, if we had a steady supply of seasonal labor.

In June, the Department of Homeland Security finally agreed to a one-off release of 15,000 additional H2B visas. That’s good news, but too little and too late for Greenscape — by the time we’d found workers and brought them here, the summer rush would have been over.

That’s why we need congressional action to permanently raise the cap on H2B visas. We’ll only hire foreign workers to do jobs that Americans don’t want. Lifting the visa cap wouldn’t hurt U.S. workers. In fact, it would protect the jobs of at least 150 Americans who rely on Greenscape for their livelihood.

Daniel Currin is CEO of Greenscape, a landscaping company based in Holly Springs.




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