This article is presented in conjunction with “H-2B: The Basics” and “H-2B: The FEWA Perspective.”
Finding employees has become one of the biggest issues in the landscaping industry, and H-2B has been both a saving grace and constant headache in this dynamic. H-2B, as everyone knows, is the controversial non-immigrant, non-agricultural visa that many employers throughout the U.S. use to bring in foreign labor to work for one-time occurrence, seasonal, intermittent, or peak time need. The program allows 66,000 visas per year: 33,000 for a first cap that covers the 4th and 1st quarters of the year; and 33,000 for a second cap that covers the 2nd and 3rd quarters of the year. However, H-2B has grown so popular that employers are left fighting for visas that fall extremely short of industry needs.
As director of human resources at CoCal Landscape in Denver, CO, H-2B has been a huge part of my career. Though I had worked with the program before, in 2000 I was tasked with assisting our immigration attorney with bringing over 20 foreign workers on H-2B visas. I had no idea the amount of work the process required, but we went from those 20 people to a current total of 160 workers that come each year to work for CoCal.
As I write this article, I’m hoping my certification process gets granted with enough time before the second cap is met. Over these 20 years, I can honestly say no year is the same, no processing is the same. If you think you know what you’re doing, this program—with constantly changing government regulations and attacks from H-2B opponents—will knock you to your knees. It’s absolutely anguishing, hair pulling, frustrating, and dumbfounding, but also very fulfilling and rewarding.
In the back of my mind are all the people that depend on me to successfully get these visas. There’s the owner, leadership team, operations managers, and supervisors of CoCal—but also the 160 workers. People like Rito, who has been a seasonal CoCal worker since the very first time we participated in H-2B. Or Yair, who started with us as a young man and is now married with two children and fully bilingual. These workers and their families’ well-being fall on me. This pressure is intense from all sides to get the process done right, done quickly, and achieve visas.
The Labor Shortage
Since I have been working with the H-2B program, there have been two years when CoCal didn’t receive any visas. The first year was in 2009. The other was just last year, in 2020. These two years were tough with profit losses, contract losses, and spikes in accidents in both liability and workers comp. The turnover we experienced was exorbitant. It was like a revolving door of applicants.
In 2017, we unfortunately missed the cut because the second cap had already been met. We then had to wait for legislation for more H-2B relief to be approved. That year, a bill was approved that raised the cap from 66,000 to 129,547 H-2B visas. Once the visas arrived in August, we brought over our workers despite only having three months left in the season. We did this because while waiting for visas, we had hired from the local labor pool, and our turnover rate skyrocketed to 28% in June and to 48% by August. Since February 1 of that year, we had hired 205 landscape laborers. Of those, 89 had terminated their employment; working from just two days to less than two months. Turnover is very costly in training, uniforms, safety equipment, and more. In 2017, CoCal lost a total of $965,833.49 in contracts either not renewed or cancelled due to poor quality work. We struggled so much with labor that our quality had deteriorated.
Last year, when we received no visas, we hired 239 total landscape laborers and from April through October, we lost 110, nearly 50%. Additionally, we had to raise our pay $1.29 higher over the prevailing wage we are certified to pay H-2B laborers. Unfortunately, we ran out of hours to sustain many of them through the winter months and had to lay-off the rest.
High Turnover & Premiums
Why the high turnover? Our main mission at CoCal is to always train, train, train new employees—but in 2020, we found it was difficult to train the large number of brand new labor we had. With COVID and high unemployment, last year we had to hire many employees who were not only new to CoCal, but new to the industry as well. Many came from restaurants or factories. Not only did they have to learn to use heavy machinery, but their bodies had to acclimate to a new strenuous and physically demanding routine. Many new hires simply didn’t realize that landscape work is not like cutting your own lawn at home. It’s hard, hot, and heavy work—day after day. This related in large part to why we had huge turnover. This difficulty made us realize how much we have relied solely on H-2B employees in the past since many of them are already well trained and experienced.
Another major consequence we faced last year due to the lack of H-2B employees, apart from turnover, was the increase in accidents—accidents that contributed to a huge hike in this year’s insurance premiums. We found out the hard way at insurance renewal time the true cost of less experienced labor. At CoCal, we work really hard to create a safe work environment for our staff, yet despite those efforts, it seems as if insurance companies don’t want to cover landscape companies anymore. It’s frustrating and disheartening.
Perspective On The Future
Knowing the importance of a reliable and stable workforce year after year to grow our organization—and provide a stable career path with living wages to our employees—has caused us to think differently. We have changed our efforts based on the difficulties of last year. Of the few new employees that lasted and overcame the challenges, we are even more focused on keeping them employed, getting them well trained, and ensuring they are better equipped to tackle 2021 with us.
Of course, we’re never halting our efforts to bring in our H-2B employees as well. The H-2B employees that come to CoCal year after year are well trained and know their jobs backward and forward. Many jump off the bus we hire to transport them from the border and head straight to work that very same day. That commitment is appreciated and recognized, and that’s why we will never stop hiring them. We also know the consequences for their families if they are unemployed. But experience had taught us that we must wean CoCal from depending on the program for our success. The H-2B program, as is stands now, is too unpredictable and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to obtain visas. Moving forward, a complementary mix of H-2B staff and more local employees will contribute to growing our strong and successful company.
Medrano is human resources director for CoCal Landscape in Denver, CO, and President of the National Hispanic Landscape Alliance (NHLA), now part of the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP). Medrano was named a 2017 Fellow of the Latino Leadership Institute.
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