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Apr 2, 2019 7:26 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Federal Inaction On Foreign Worker Shortage Leaves Employers Desperate, Again

Fort Pond Native Plants in Montauk has just half the work force it needs going into the spring season because the Department of Homeland Security has not lifted a cap on the number of seasonal worker visas it issued this year. Kyril Bromley
Apr 2, 2019 7:26 AM

The winter and early spring of 2019 have been a horrible case of deja vu for many of the East End’s largest employers, as thousands of seasonal foreign workers have been denied temporary visas they rely on to return to the United States for seasonal work each spring.

Many local businesses that rely on big increases in their payrolls for the summer, especially in skilled but strenuous jobs, are finding themselves with none of their expected extra staff on track for arrival by the time they are needed.

Owners and elected officials say the shortages will hamstring their businesses and the local economy as a whole, and will threaten the remaining full-time jobs of many permanent local residents.

At a time when the country is polarized over immigration and undocumented workers, a move to hobble businesses that rely on the H-2B visa process to fill their workforce needs legally is galling, they say.

“This is not immigration—this is business support,” said Barbara Rizzi, chief financial officer for the Tortorella Group, a Southampton-based swimming pool construction and service company. “The frustrating thing is, they don’t seem to understand the impact on American workers. I would not have my job and could not live here if not for the work that we need these workers to do.”

Ms. Rizzi’s boss, John Tortorella, said that the impact of not getting all the workers he’d applied for last summer was a major hit to the company’s bottom line, in overtime wages and in fatigue on the staff he does have.

“We had guys working 70 to 80 hours a week, and you get to the point where it impacts efficiency,” Mr. Tortorella said.

In Montauk alone, businesses filed applications for more than 500 workers, according to Paul Monte, the president of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce and a senior adviser at Gurney’s Montauk Resort, the hamlet’s largest employer.

Only 18 were approved.

“It’s at crisis level now,” Mr. Monte said at a rally of business leaders organized by U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin last week in Westhampton. “These workers are necessary for businesses to survive. If they don’t get the summer workers now, a lot of them will have to scale back when the work is available, and then in the winter it’s harder for them to pay their full-time people who live here. Some may even have to close.”

East Hampton-based landscaping company Landscape Details was denied visas for all of the 70 workers they said they need to fill out their crews by next month for the start of planting season.

“It’s very hard for us to know how much business to sell,” the company’s construction manager, Jim Zayicek, said. “You can’t sell the work if you don’t know you’re going to have the labor force to do it.”

Joe Calise, the operations manager for the company, said they will be going to job fairs and running ads in newspapers and online looking for more workers. Unlike officials of most other companies who discussed the issue, Mr. Calise said Landscape Details has been lucky and has always gotten the workers the flourishing company needs—until this year.

The issue is nothing new for the owners of local hotels, landscaping, pool service companies and other service industry businesses that rely on foreign labor to take on bottom-rung jobs that they cannot find American workers to do.

The struggle to attain the H-2B visas has been an annual chore for dozens of local companies for decades. The application process requires a business to advertise locally for jobs, prove to both state and federal labor authorities that the responses to advertising did not fill the demand, and then wait out foreign consulates’ processing backlogs.

On the premise of protecting American jobs, the federal government has long capped the number of H-2B visas it issues. The cap has been set at 66,000 for many years and has not grown on pace with expanding demand as the national economy roared out of the recession years.

The annual cap is split into two halves, one for winter peak businesses, like large ski resorts in the Rockies and Vermont, and one for summer peak businesses in resort areas like the Hamptons.

There were more than 97,000 applications for summer business employees in 2019—for only 33,000 visas. That meant that many businesses simply have been told they will not be able to bring in workers this year, unless the cap is lifted.

Similar critical shortages in the number of visas issued were seen in 2008 and 2009. Lobbying by elected officials produced a “fix” that allowed those who had received H-2B visas in the past to be exempted from the cap. But that exemption was allowed to lapse in 2015 by a Congress gridlocked on any sort of foreign worker program, in part due to head-butting over immigration reforms.

Last year, after similarly desperate pleas from small-business owners, Congress gave the Department of Homeland Security secretary the power to raise the cap on the number of workers if the office determines there is an economic need. Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen subsequently allowed an additional 15,000 visas to be issued in late May of last year, and additional workers arrived in July.

She has not followed suit this year, and a spokesperson for her office nodded to a letter Ms. Nielsen sent to Congress in November that said it should be legislators that set “right” number of H-2B visas to be awarded.

Mr. Zeldin last week joined the chorus of East End business owners seeking to impress on Ms. Nielsen that while Congress struggles to advance the issue against the tide of immigration disputes, she should offer businesses immediate relief.

“These are employers following the rules to legally bring in these employees, and it is important that the federal government set these employers up for success,” Mr. Zeldin said while standing in the parking lot of Peat & Sons nursery in Westhampton on Wednesday, March 20. “While we are advocating a permanent solution that requires an act of Congress on H-2B, it does not require an act of Congress to fix this issue for 2019. The secretary of Homeland Security needs to exercise the authority that she has to lift the cap—right now.”

Mr. Zeldin lamented the gridlock that has gripped Congress over immigration issues and said that the H-2B program should be something both sides of the political aisle can agree on, for the sake of small-business owners.

“They don’t care if you’re Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal,” he said before a row of television cameras and business owners. “Just do your job.”

The congressman also said the H-2B process itself needs to be overhauled to free employers from being required to offer such extensive proof that they do not have a sufficient labor pool available to meet their needs for workers, and that returning workers should not have to go through the full application process every year.

Montauk landscaper James Grimes, who is also an East Hampton Town Trustee, said that of the 25 H-2B visas he applied for this year, 22 were for workers who had worked for him for at least one year previously, and eight were for workers who had worked for him since 1995, the first year he tapped the visa program. Not one of the workers was granted a visa to return this year.

“They are panicking,” he said. “Literally, they are calling me daily, and I have nothing that I can say to them. It’s really sad, because now we are having to go looking for people to replace some of them, because we have no other choice. It’s heartbreaking.”

Mr. Tortorella said the blindness to the myriad economic benefits to the county seem to be completely ignored by the federal officials who are failing to allow the program to help businesses. The vast majority of H-2B workers have full zero-dependent taxes taken out of their paychecks but will never be allowed to benefit from Social Security or unemployment benefits—those taxes go to pay for American workers.

“The amount of taxes this country is throwing out through this, it’s crazy. Are they sleeping over there?” he said. “You don’t want to give us workers to create more profits and create more tax revenues? Washington is so dysfunctional right now.”

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