Oregon's Senator Jeff Merkley today visited Springfield to celebrate the Senate passage of his bill to end abuse in the H-2B guest worker visa program that allowed some contractors to avoid hiring Oregonians in favor of foreign labor. Yesterday, the Senate passed the comprehensive immigration bill that included Senator Merkley's American Jobs in American Forests Act. Merkley also called on the House to quickly pass this legislation to end the abuse in the H-2B program and get more Oregonians to work in the woods.
"I was outraged when I heard about the abuses of the H-2B program and was committed to making sure that American forest workers have the first shot at jobs in our forests," said Merkley. "It's great news that the Senate has passed this legislation and now it's time for the House to take action to protect American jobs."
In 2010, an Oregon newspaper reported that Recovery Act funds intended to put Oregonians to work thinning forests had instead gone to contractors abusing the H-2B guest worker visa program to bring in foreign labor.
After Senator Merkley asked the Forest Service for more information last year, it was additionally revealed that over a third of the Forest Service's contracts for forest thinning and wildfire reduction work in Oregon and Washington in recent years had gone to companies using foreign labor despite soaring unemployment in timber-dependent counties.
Senator Merkley was joined at today's event by Mike Wheelock of Greyback Forestry in Merlin, OR who has been underbid for forest thinning contracts by companies that have used foreign workers under the H-2B program to lower their labor costs.
"When we realized there were millions of dollars earmarked for forest health, our company was excited to put Oregonians to work," said Wheelock. "But we soon found out that we could not compete on the open market because firms abusing the H-2B guest worker program were undercutting our bids. This was after we received almost 500 applications from Oregonians who wanted to work in the woods. This legislation passed by Senator Merkley will close loop holes, end abuse of the H-2B visa program in forestry work and allow legitimate contractors to compete on an even playing field."
The American Jobs in American Forests Act would make three changes to the H-2B visa program for forestry jobs:
1) Enhanced recruitment: Before submitting a petition to hire H-2B workers, employers would be required to use appropriate recruitment strategies to seek American applicants. This could include advertising at job fairs, with local and state workforce agencies and nonprofits, or on reputable Internet job-search sites or radio in the region where the work is to take place. This change would ensure that residents of the communities in which the jobs are available actually know they exist and have an opportunity to apply for them.
2) State Workforce Agencies: Before the Secretary of Labor could grant a temporary labor certification to an employer to hire H-2B workers, the director of the state workforce agency would have to certify that the employer has complied with all recruitment requirements and make a formal determination that nationals of the United States are not qualified or available to fill the employment opportunities. This would provide a checkpoint where local officials with knowledge of employment conditions on the ground would be able to assess the employer's claims that there were no American workers who wanted the jobs.
3) Itineraries covering multiple states: If an employer seeks to be certified for a work itinerary that covers multiple states and if the work outside the primary state lasts for 7 days or longer, the employer will have to also seek permission to hire H-2B workers, and first comply with recruitment requirements, in the other state or states. This will close a loophole that currently allows contractors to move H-2B workers across state lines and therefore avoid advertising the jobs in the communities where the work is taking place.