Curious Findings in 2016 H-2B Data

By Preston Huennekens on July 18, 2017

On July 12, CIS released a series of three maps under the title "Local Impact of H-2B Guest Workers". The maps show the proliferation of the H-2B worker program throughout our states and communities. As most people look through the maps, they will likely raise questions about the sheer numbers of these workers and the potential consequences of expanding the H-2B program, as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did on July 17.

The H-2B worker program was designed to fill gaps in the labor force. In theory, as companies with a need for seasonal work grew, there would not be enough American citizens to fill the gaps. Businesses apply for "certified positions", or job vacancies approved by the Department of Labor that an immigrant holding an H-2B visa can fill. These businesses must show that "there are not enough U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available to do the temporary work" and that "employing H-2B workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers."

The problem, of course, is that companies and businesses go out of their way to craft a positive narrative on their need for temporary foreign workers. Alien employees will work hard and ask no questions because their visa status is completely dependent on their employer's good graces; they are not likely to ask for a change in wages or conditions, even if their working conditions are less than ideal. Clearly, employers would prefer to have such pliant workers. To employ American citizens, these companies would need to change the way they have become accustomed to treating their employees, and would certainly have to pay their employees better wages and find new ways to hire American workers, rather than relying on a steady influx of foreign labor.

Yet what struck me as I combed through the program's disclosure data was not the number of workers, the occupations, or even the locations. It was the existence of a number of certified positions that paid unusually high wages compared to the typical H-2B job, with some paying almost $135,000 per year. These jobs did not appear to be the classic "jobs Americans won't do".

Most H-2B workers are not highly skilled. They are laborers suited for positions in construction, landscaping, forestry, and food service, for example. These are jobs that are appropriate for those with no education beyond high school, summer jobs for students, or those who are entering the workforce for the first time. These jobs traditionally require no education or experience.

For example, a position in Grass Valley, Calif., was certified for an H-2B worker with a starting salary of $68 per hour as a project sales manager at AJA Video Systems. The position required zero educational experience and provided no training. One cannot help but wonder how AJA Video Systems could not find an American citizen with sales management training willing to fill this lucrative position.

In St. Louis, Mo., Closed Loop Recycling was granted a certified H-2B position for an engineering manager job that paid $62 per hour. Unlike the project sales manager, this position required a master's degree. However, the same question remains: Was Closed Loop Recycling really unable to find an American engineer willing to fill this position? Why was a foreign worker, with no in-house experience, needed for this management position?

Let me be clear, these are outliers within the program. The average offered wage for a H-2B certified worker in 2016 was $12.31 an hour. But these examples show some of the basic problems with foreign worker programs: They can be manipulated for purposes that were not intended originally, and the result is often that qualified U.S. workers do not have the opportunity to fill the job.

Map 3 in our series shows employers that offer unusually high wages for H-2B positions — positions I call the outliers (see table below). Yet many others (such as a "head lifeguard" in Revere, Mass., which pays $35 an hour) seem unlikely not to attract U.S. workers. Why couldn't a head lifeguard job be filled by an experienced lifeguard who has worked his or her way up over the course of a few summers? It's hard to believe that no older students returning home from school would want to continue working at their neighborhood pool in between semesters if they were being paid $35 an hour to do so — that's more than the wage they would earn at a typical internship, which is $21 on average.

In contrast to the claims of the body shops and employers who benefit from the H-2B program, the Center's research shows that there is no job that citizens will not do, and that the increasing use of H-2B adversely affects unskilled Americans who are the most vulnerable in society.

Notable High Paying Positions

Position Employer Location Hourly Wage Education Requirement
Product Sales Manager AJA Video
Grass Valley, Calif. $68.45 None
Engineering Manager Closed Loop
St. Louis, Mo. $62.78 Master's
Chief Development Officer Water's Edge
Stuart, Fla. $55.28 Bachelor's
Project Designer Hooky Inc. Boston, Mass. $54.14 Associate's
Senior Care Manager Kosher Caregivers Boca Raton, Fla. $49.12 Bachelor's
Lead Programmer The Farmer's Dog New York, N.Y. $46.00 Bachelor's
Senior Software Engineer Gubagoo, Inc. West Palm Beach,
$44.15 Bachelor's
Wildlife Capture Helicopter Pilot Heliwind LLC Hurricane, Utah $44.07 High School
Chinese/Japanese Translator
and Culture Consultant
Japan Crate LLC Ketchikan, Alaska $43.41 Bachelor's
Tax Preparer Pupilo Agency Yonkers, N.Y. $33.53 High School
Coach Massive Coaching
Palm City, Fla $30.85 None
Amusement Ride Mechanic Casco, Inc. Wisconsin Dells,
$28.11 None