Monday, November 24, 2014

The U.S. Senate passed Oregon's Senator Jeff Merkley's amendment to end abuse of the H-2B visa program in forestry work and protect American jobs in American forests. The amendment will be added to the comprehensive immigration bill being debated by the U.S. Senate.

In 2010, the Bend Bulletin reported that Recovery Act funds intended to put Oregonians to work thinning forests had instead gone to contractors abusing the H-2B guest worker visa program to bring in foreign labor.

After Senator Merkley asked the Forest Service for more information last year, it was additionally revealed that over a third of the Forest Service's contracts for forest thinning and wildfire reduction work in Oregon and Washington in recent years has gone to companies using foreign labor.

"You can imagine the outrage of Oregon's timber workers when they found out that government contracts for logging and improving forest health were going to foreign workers when thousands of American loggers were unemployed," said Merkley. "This is unacceptable. Unemployed Oregonians shouldn't be undercut by contractors who game the system by pretending that no Americans want this work. I'm pleased this much-needed reform has been added to the immigration bill."

The H-2B visa program is intended for use only when American workers are unwilling or unable to do the work. In Oregon's state workforce database, there are more than 5,000 workers listed as searching for forest work. An Inspector General report on the Recovery Act jobs concluded that it was likely that Oregonians never knew about the jobs because the contractors are not required to advertise the job openings in states where the work is located.

Senator Merkley's amendment makes three changes to the H-2B program for forestry jobs:

1)      Enhanced recruitment: Before submitting a petition to hire H-2B workers, employers would be required to use appropriate recruitment strategies to seek American applicants. This could include advertising at job fairs, with local and state workforce agencies and nonprofits, or on reputable Internet job-search sites or radio in the region where the work is to take place. This change would ensure that residents of the communities in which the jobs are available actually know they exist and have an opportunity to apply for them.

2)      State Workforce Agencies: Before the Secretary of Labor could grant a temporary labor certification to an employer to hire H-2B workers, the director of the state workforce agency would have to certify that the employer has complied with all recruitment requirements and make a formal determination that nationals of the United States are not qualified or available to fill the employment opportunities. This would provide a checkpoint where local officials with knowledge of employment conditions on the ground would be able to assess the employer's claims that there were no American workers who wanted the jobs.

3)      Itineraries covering multiple states: If an employer seeks to be certified for a work itinerary that covers multiple states and if the work outside the primary state lasts for 7 days or longer, the employer will have to also seek permission to hire H-2B workers, and first comply with recruitment requirements, in the other state or states. This will close a loophole that currently allows contractors to move H-2B workers across state lines and therefore avoid advertising the jobs in the communities where the work is taking place.

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