Some employers left short-staffed after visa program changes

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) — Some eastern Idaho businesses are struggling to find seasonal workers under new, stricter visa rules for non-agricultural workers.

"It's been very difficult to deal with," Mandi Wilkinson, a controller for MD Nursery and Landscaping, told the Post Register . "Do we take on new work? Do we have to cancel some of the work we already have?"

Companies like MD Nursery had been allowed to bring back their previous foreign workers each year without counting them among the total number of visas issued. But now they can't use that returning worker exemption, and instead have to prove they've first tried to hire workers from the United States before they can be issued new H-2B visas.

The visas are issued by the Department of Labor in two allotments each year. Each round of visas allows 33,000 seasonal workers into the country.

MD Nursery and Landscaping, which does business in Driggs, Idaho, and Jackson, Wyoming, applied for 62 foreign workers through the visa program this year but didn't get any. With employment remaining at historically low levels in the region, finding summer workers has been especially difficult.

Landscaping companies cite a variety of reasons that local workers have been harder to come by. Tim Jones, an immigration worker based in Idaho Falls, said the growing demand for foreign workers coincided with the decline of the unemployment rate in the U.S. over recent years, meaning fewer domestic workers were available. Meanwhile, many of the people who need seasonal jobs took jobs in national parks and resorts rather than going into landscaping.

"You can't find full-time workers around here that want to work for eight months with a shovel all day," Seasons West Landscaping Manager Bart Prestwich said.

Seasons West Landscaping received 10 visa workers during the second round of visas last July. This spring Prestwich's company applied again, but didn't get any.

"Everyone is looking for help, and they can't find it," he said.

MD Nursery has turned to another source of workers as a stopgap: Puerto Rico. Earlier this spring the company worked with Martin Recruiting Services to fly eight Puerto Rican workers to Idaho to help cover the shifts that would have gone to visa workers.

Martin Recruiting Services founder Clay Martin says his company has brought thousands of workers from the U.S. territory to companies in the mainland U.S. over the last three years. This year has seen a huge spike in demand, he said.

"Puerto Rico has high unemployment and low minimum wages. It's attractive for people to come work on the mainland, and they don't need a visa to do it," Martin said.

While H-2B visa workers have to stay with the company that sponsored them, workers from Puerto Rico don't have that limitation. That gives them more leverage to negotiate higher wages and leave jobs for better offerings elsewhere.

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This story has been changed to correct the name of an immigration attorney to Tim Jones.

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Information from: Post Register, http://www.postregister.com