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DeFede: Giving Away American Jobs, Pt. 2

Press Release

Location: Washington, DC

Every month the Agency for Workforce Innovation releases the state's unemployment figures and last month the numbers were downright awful.

Unemployment had jumped nearly a full percentage point from a year earlier to 8.1 percent and the one sector hit hardest according to the state was the construction industry with nearly 100,000 fewer jobs than there were a year ago.

When she released their latest report, the head of the agency, Monesia Brown - an appointee of Gov. Charlie Crist - said her staff was doing everything it could to "generate new job opportunities to advance Florida's economy."

Unfortunately, many of those new job opportunities weren't for Americans. They were for foreign workers who the state helped in securing visas to replace American workers like Bob Orr, an unemployed sheet metal worker from here in South Florida.

"Our elected officials took an oath to protect our jobs and they aren't doing that," Orr said during a recent town hall meeting organized by CBS4 News.

He's referring to the H2B visa program, which allows companies to bring in foreign workers for seasonal work but only if there are no Americans available to do the job.

Florida ranked second in the number of jobs certified for foreign workers under the H2B program.

In 2008, 22,195 jobs in the state were approved for foreign workers.

The vast majority of those jobs were for housekeepers and waitresses, but included in that 2008 Florida list were 1,145 construction workers, 119 roofers, ten electricians and six bricklayers.

"The H2B visa program is ludicrous at this point in time in our economy," argues Carlos Rivas, a member of the local sheet metal union. "We have people out of work who need to work to survive and feed their families and give them health care."

Rivas and Orr both point to the mega construction project in Bal Harbour, site of the new St. Regis Resort. The company hired to install the heating and air conditioning ducts, CYVSA International, has brought in workers from Mexico even though there are more than a thousand unemployed sheet metal workers right here in South Florida.

"This is not a union or non-union issue," said Larry Stewart, business manager for the local sheet metal workers' union. "This is an American worker issue. And it is outrageous that the U.S. government and the state of Florida allowed those visas to be issued and those people be allowed to come here when so many of our people are out of work."

So how did the company do it?

The story of CYVSA's efforts shows how the system favors companies at the expense of American workers.

CYVSA applied to the Agency for Workforce Innovation for the right to use foreign labor on September 30, 2008.

The next day, October 1 at 9:05 a.m., the state agency, following federal rules, opened a ten-day recruitment period to find U.S. workers. During those ten days, CYVSA was required to contact the local union and place ads in the Miami Herald.

But the company waited until the second half of the ten-day period before it ran the ads and near the end of the timeline before contacting the union.

And the company never said there was a deadline to apply.

The union provided the CBS4 I team copies of certified mail receipts marked October 10 for resumes they said they sent to the state.

Despite their efforts they were too late. By the time they were mailed, the state had officially closed the recruitment period at 9:16 a.m. on October 10 -- literally 16 minutes into the tenth day.

The state then notified the federal government that no Americans applied for the jobs and the Department of Labor subsequently "certified" CYVSA's request for 30 foreign workers.

And what happened to the resumes sent by the union postmarked on the 10th?

The union said when they never heard from the folks in Tallahassee or anyone from CYVSA, the called the state agency on October 27 and that's when they were given the news.

"She said [if they don't arrive on time] we throw them out," said Daniel Villarruel. "And that's when I jumped out of my seat and said, `What are you talking about you throw them out? She said, `Yes sir, because it was after the job order closed.'"

Howard Susskind, a labor attorney representing the union said everything about this case shocks him.

"I've been representing working people and their families for over 30 years and I've never seen anything as outrageous as this treatment by an agency of the government," Susskind said. "The law is very clear in what it is designed to do, and that is to protect the jobs of American workers. And here it is being abused by the process. We are not necessarily criticizing the workers who have come here to do the work, what we are saying is that the process has been abused, has been ignored, has not been followed in the proper manner."

The state's Agency for Workforce Innovation refused to provide someone to go on camera to answer questions about CYVSA's application.

In a written statement the agency said it did nothing wrong. "We take very seriously our responsibility of helping Floridians get back to work and/or into better paying positions so they can provide for themselves and their families," the agency wrote.

It defended its decision to cut short the recruitment period, noting: "There is no reference in the [the federal rules] as to what time of the day on the 10th day that the job order should be closed."

The agency also argued it had "no authority" to demand the employer run its newspaper ads or contact the union at the start of the ten day period.

And the state denies throwing the resumes away.

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, in whose district the St Regis project is being built, has been requesting to ask her about this.

"I can not believe it," she said. "Can you actually believe that in the state of Florida with the difficult situation we are in, for them to say there are no sheet metal workers here in the United States of America and they have to bring them in from another country, that doesn't even pass the laugh test."

She says she has been trying to get answers for weeks, writing two letters to the U.S. Department of Labor

"You have the right to hire whoever you want, but lets be clear about it," she said. "Are you doing this to go around employment laws of the United States? Around safety laws of the State of Florida? Around labor laws that are in effect? So I am worried about it. I've asked a lot of questions and I'm hoping to get some answers."

Have officials responded to any of her requests for information?

"I've gotten no answers," she said.

And we still don't know for sure how many foreign workers CYVSA brought in.

The company refused our request for an interview and would only say they did hire some Americans and that the foreign workers they brought in came in under a different visa than the H2B visa.

The company refused to say what type of visa they were using.

The Department of Labor suggested we check with the State Department. The State Department sent us to Homeland Security. And Homeland Security said it wasn't sure.

Nevertheless, to these unemployed sheet metal workers the mere fact that the state of Florida and the Department of Labor saw nothing wrong with the company's desire to bring 30 workers from Mexico is hard to understand

"It's 30 visas that are forcing me out of the State of Florida and having to travel to Phoenix in order to make a living to provide for my family," said one of the workers.

Added another: "If it doesn't stop here, when is it going to stop? What's next? That's what we should be asking ourselves."

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