They’re the veritable saviors of the hospitality industry, aren’t they? Foreign guest workers, recruited from distant places, 7,276 of them last year, to rescue Florida’s hotels and restaurants and country clubs and amusement parks and other businesses so very desperate to fill vacant jobs.
Without these recruits — officially designated H-2B temporary non-agricultural guest workers — these hapless businesses would have been forced to find help among Florida’s piddling pool of 977,000 unemployed citizens.
Of course, H-2B employers must first attest that they can’t find actual Americans to fill these American jobs. But everyone knows that unemployed Americans disdain the very idea of laboring in the Dickensian miseries of air conditioned luxury vacation resorts.
Perhaps employers also like the idea of cut-rate labor. They pay no unemployment compensation or health benefits for H-2B workers. And H-2B workers are bound to a single employer for the life of their visa, up to three years. This set of workers is barred from receiving raises over the modest “prevailing” wages set for their particular job by the U.S. Department of Labor (like, say, $8.95 an hour for an amusement park worker). Those wages also have the added benefit of depressing the pay of regular American workers at the same workplace.
“A scandal,” Gregory Schell, managing attorney for Florida Legal Services, called the H-2B program. Schell has represented a series of foreign workers, brought over on H-2B visas by labor contractors, who found themselves in virtual peonage.
Even the U.S. Department of Labor found the program wanting, noting in the Federal Register this year, that “Federal investigators found employers are attesting to compliance with program obligations with which they have not complied, and that employers do not appear to be recruiting, hiring and paying U.S. workers, and in some cases the H-2B workers themselves, in accordance with established program requirements.”
Last week, Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson brokered an agreement with the county’s hospitality industry to reduce H-2B programs by 15 percent. “But ultimately my goal is to prepare local people to take those jobs and try to eliminate those foreign guest workers altogether,” Aaronson told the Palm Beach Post.
In December, a federal judge in Miami sentenced two labor contractors to 51 and 78 months, respectively, for turning the H-2B program into a human trafficking scheme. They stole most of the wages of 39 guest workers they conned into coming over from the Philippines to be farmed out to hotels and country clubs in South Florida. They had jammed most of them into a single house in Boca Raton, where the workers were barely fed and kept in deplorable conditions.
Two months earlier, in Orlando, a Brazilian couple was convicted for defrauding their H-2B dupes after federal investigators discovered they had used a series of shell companies to recycle some 1,000 “temporary” workers through the program, all the while grabbing exorbitant fees. The feds seized $55 million from the couple. Meanwhile, Schell had to threaten to sue the resort hotels where the guest workers had been employed to recover their pilfered wages.
The Department of Labor has finally written new rules designed to stop H-2B abuses and raise the wages. But there has been a major push-back from business groups and their minions in Congress. “I’m betting the new rules never see the light of day,” Schell said.
He also worries that a crackdown on the H-2B will send employers to the even dodgier J-1 Visa program, overseen, if barely, by the State Department. The J-1 program, ostensibly, is a “cultural exchange program,” designed to “foster better understanding and acceptance between the people of the United States and other countries around the world through educational and cultural exchange programs.” Schell talked of J-1 students, highly educated, lured over to gain experience in the hospitality industry, often with fancy ads about an exciting stay in the United States. Instead, they’ve found themselves spending a year changing bed sheets, enduring outrageous service fees levied by labor contractors, along with high rents for lousy housing. In August, about 200 foreign students protested on the streets of Hershey, Penn., after finding that their “cultural experience” consisted of working long hours for minimum wage in a candy factory.
About 1,900 J-1 visas have been approved for Florida employers, but the State Department has little information about their working conditions. “Nobody’s focused on them. Nobody tracks them. Nobody cares. But I know for a fact that some of my H-2B clients have been replaced by J-1s.”
The J-1 workers are even better deals than H-2Bs. They can be worked for a flat minimum wage ($7.31 an hour in Florida). Employers pay no benefits. No unemployment. No Social Security. And the J-1s are also stuck with a single employer, no matter how lousy their working conditions.
Guest worker programs have allowed the exploitation of foreign workers while sopping up jobs that could go to some of the 10.6 percent of Floridians who remain unemployed. It’s a scandal. It’s also the future.
Schell is convinced that the coming crackdown on the hiring of illegal immigrants and the required E-Verify screening for most workers will include a major concession to those businesses long dependent on low-wage, undocumented foreign workers. He said to expect an expansion of the guest worker programs, which come with conveniently few of those niggling rules and benefits and middle class wages that make Americans so unpalatable to certain industries.
“It’s going to be huge,” Schell said.