Roughly 125 Northeast Ohio landscape contractors rely on the H-2B visa program to hire workers and fill their staff each year. This year, because of changes to the program, about two-thirds of those companies were not approved for visas, leaving them scrambling and short-staffed.
The H-2B visas, which can be obtained by a seasonal immigrant worker, are capped at 66,000 workers per year. In years past, it has allowed for a “returning worker exemption,” meaning immigrant workers who are returning to jobs are not counted against the cap. However, this year and last, Congress took away that exemption, so fewer visas are available.
“This is widespread, and it trickles down into a lot of other industries as well,” Sandy Mulney, executive director of the Ohio Landscape Association, said. “It’s not just simply the landscape contractors’ businesses that are being hurt.”
For Rob Morel, who owns Morel Landscaping, the impact on the suppliers is already clear.
Morel said they rely on local companies for supplies like mulch, pavers and outdoor lighting. Morel said this year, they’ve purchased roughly half of what they normally would.
“Just this week, we had a supplier ask us why we weren’t buying as much and I had to explain, ‘Look, it’s because of our work, we can’t get the work done as fast as we normally do,’” Morel said. “It has nothing to do with their [suppliers] work, but they’re suffering as well.”
Morel typically employs the same 12 workers from Mexico through the H-2B visa program each year. This year, he was approved for zero.
“It’s impossible to plan,” Morel said. “When you go year to year to year without knowing if you’re going to get most of your staff back, it’s impossible to budget, to plan, to purchase equipment unless you’re just flying by the seat of your pants.”
Morel said they have already put a freeze on purchasing any large equipment this year because of the uncertainty of what the future holds for his company.
On June 1, Congress agreed to allow for an additional 15,000 H-2B visas, but local landscape companies said that is not nearly enough.
In a statement, Ohio Senator Rob Portman’s spokeswoman Emily Benavides told News 5 that the senator supports the visa program.
Portman supports the H2B visa program and has been pushing the Trump administration to utilize the authority granted to DHS to issue H2B visas above the cap. Since Portman’s questioning of Secretary Nielsen last month, DHS has allowed an additional 15,000 H2B visas to be issued. Portman believes this is a step in the right direction, but would like to see more H2B visas issued in a safe and secure manner.
Sen. Sherrod Brown’s spokeswoman Jennifer Donohue sent News 5 the following statement:
Senator Brown believes this visa program should be examined as part of an overall fix to our broken immigration system. He understands that some employers have a legitimate need for seasonal workers, and he also believes reforms are needed to make sure these programs are structured in a way that doesn’t bring down wages for all workers.
Congressman David Joyce sent the following statement:
Our nation’s immigration system is broken, there is no denying that, and it is wrongfully punishing employers who want to hire those who can come to this country legally to work hard and contribute. There is an increasing need for the H-2B visa program in our communities across the country, yet the visa cap has not increased with that growing demand. For the first time ever, there are now more job openings in our country than job seekers, so the demand for qualified and determined employees is even higher now. The opportunities are out there but per usual, the federal government is standing in the way of good programs that work.