Saturday, June 14, 2008

J-1 visas and student workers just don't cut it

I read with great interest a recent article in the Vineland (MA) Gazette that told how businesses on Martha’s Vineyard are surviving in spite of not getting all the H-2B seasonal guest workers they wanted.

The headline suggested that the businesses have been able to hire enough employees for the tourist season in spite of failure of Congress to expand the H=2B program. And in spite of a chamber of commerce official saying that local businesses were anticipating a shortage of about 1,200 workers this summer.

Martha’s Vineyard, of course, is one of America’s busiest and most popular summer resorts.

As I scanned the headline I wondered, wow, am I missing something here? Could my landscape friends be overstating their need for seasonal workers? Could it be that the H-2B program, as some its critics whine, takes jobs away from our young people and other U.S. citizens desiring employment?

Nobody wants to see that, right?

As it turns out, neither is the case. And, the H-2B critics are, in fact, just whining.

The article described how some of the island businesses acquired workers through J-1 visas that allow foreign students to work seasonally in the United States. Others hired local students (mostly high schoolers) for jobs such as bussing tables, cleaning guest rooms, etc.

We’ve talked to a lot of landscape business owners these past few years and while many are doing fine with local help, many others have had little or no success attracting reliable local workers, students or otherwise. Often, again in the face of criticism of the H-2B program, at wages considerably better than those at a fast food joint.

Let me just state — the J-1 program doesn't work for landscape production because these foreign students generally take off in September or October, just when most landscape companies have recovered their costs and are ready to burn rubber in hopes of making their profit for the season.

Local high students, you say? How many do you know that aren’t involved with summer sports, band or working in internships? Darn few are willing to work five or six long hot days in a row through the course of a season. That’s what I’m told.

The J-1 program works fine for amusement parks and tee-shirt shacks that are busy during the relatively short summer season. After Labor Day these businesses generally don’t need as much help so they don’t mind if these workers take off.

The landscape business is a longer, harder pull. It takes a tougher worker, and a worker that shows up long before the summer tourists arrive and is still producing through most of the fall.

The H-2B seasonal guest worker program remains one of the few programs instituted and administered by our federal government that actually works just as intended. Too bad it isn’t being expanded. — Ron Hall

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