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Reform the Guest Worker program


The Forest Resources Association (FRA) is advocating to reform the guest worker program because we consider it an essential element of a stable and predictable workforce — now and in the future. FRA is a part of the H-2B coalition to reinstate the returning worker exemption and get immediate H-2B visa cap relief. The forest products industry relies heavily on seasonal foreign guest workers to sustain forests and manage vegetation. This work is usually seasonal and, because tree-planting crews are itinerant, without a connection to a community, domestic workers are typically not interested in these jobs. The H-2B guest worker program has helped fill a gap in the domestic workforce for a time, but as a result of increased demand for H-2B visas from industries other than agriculture in recent years, and the sunset of the returning worker exemption, the current annual cap of 66,000 is no longer sufficient. As you know, the immigration debate is a hot issue right now and due to the divisiveness in Congress on this issue, changing the H-2B program has continued to hit roadblocks. Thus, the industry believes a more long-term, consistent and stable solution to our annual labor shortages is in order. In search of this fix, FRA has been working with U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary, to develop a new classification called H-2C. This new category is laid out in The Agricultural Guestworker Act (HR 4092), which creates a new streamlined visa program to replace H-2A and includes forestry-related work that is currently in the H-2B program. Right now, the Department of Labor (DOL) classifies some forestry-related activities, such as reforestation (tree planting) and herbicide application (including right-of-way application) in the H-2B non-agricultural guest worker program, while classifying other work such as logging in the H-2A agricultural program. Most forestry work, however, is considered agriculture-related and is regulated as such by state and federal agencies. One of the benefits of this new H-2C classification is that the program would move from DOL, which currently oversees the H-2B visa program, into the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Features of the H-2C program:

  • Employer can employ visa worker for up to 18 consecutive months.

  • Visa worker can change jobs after completing contract employment.

  • Program administered by USDA (as mentioned above).

  • Mandated wage rate is the higher of: state/local wage; or, 15 percent above the federal minimum wage (this provides more clarity).

  • No housing or transportation mandate.

  • An annual cap of 500,000 visas with automatic 10-percent escalator if all visas claimed; former H-2A and H-2B workers don’t count against the cap when working for the same employer; a worker who adjusts to legal status does not count.

This legislation was proposed in October and the AG Act has since been attached to H.R.4760 — Securing America’s Future Act of 2018. This bill is part of the larger fix being proposed by the House in overall immigration legislation. Our hope is that during the House and Senate negotiations on immigration, the language in the AG Act remains secure so we can provide a long-term solution for the forest products industry. Without achieving reform, the industry stands to remain at the mercy of an outdated program that provides an inadequate supply of visas for the workers our members need. (Deb Hawkinson is President of Forest Resources Association. She can be reached at dhawkinson@forestresources.org.)

#Opinion