A major point of the current government administration’s immigration platform has been that immigrants are taking jobs that should go to native-born Americans. This has been extended to workers who were previously covered by guest worker visas; technically these workers are considered non-immigrants, so this is actually a much broader accusation. This statement covers undocumented immigrants, documented immigrants who do not hold status, and non-immigrants who are only here to work. The concern can be reframed more generally to say that the opposition is framed around the premise that non-native born workers taking jobs from native-born workers. Upon closer examination this claim has been disproved many times over. But it has also revealed something else: there has not been a rush by native-born Americans to take the jobs vacated by visa terminations, deportations and general fear. What are these jobs that native-born Americans will not do?
Americans place a premium on their lawns. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2017 New York was fourth overall in employment levels for landscapers with 45,720 recorded employees receiving an average salary of $33,000. The NY-metro area reported the highest concentration of landscapers in the country. What this data doesn’t tell us is that “on-the-books” employees are often supplemented by seasonal workers. Many business were obtaining temporary workers to help fill the demand for these months through the H2-B visa program, however, changes to the visa program in 2017 made it difficult to get these workers. Visas have been capped at 66,000 for the year – which means that only 33,000 visas are issued for the summer – and workers from previous years are no longer excluded from the quota. And where the filing system used to be first come-first served, the visas are now distributed on a lottery. The result is that some business are set for their season in May as expected and others are struggling to meet demand in June. The Department of Homeland Security did release an additional 15,000 visas this year due to emergency petitions, but overall this is a situation that some businesses may not be able to recover from.
Ronda Fox of All Seasons Landscaping in Colorado is navigating these hurdles firsthand. She was able to secure visas in the second release, but her employees won’t be on the ground immediately, and she’s losing time in her busiest season. Hiring locally doesn’t seem to be an option. Fox is facing a low unemployment rate coupled with a relatively high proportion of college graduates in her area of Colorado. She placed a $5,000 ad for applicants and didn’t receive a single call. In Pennsylvania, Rich Barna was unable to secure visas for any of the 15 employees he normally calls up from Mexico to supplement his 15 full time American workers. He posted the job opportunity as required, but has received no inquiries from native-born Americans. He expects he’ll have to turn down work.
In multiple industries, employers are reporting issues attracting workers despite raising wages and the concern looms that if they raise wages beyond a certain threshold, they will need to pass the costs on to consumers or they won’t be able to maintain the business. For example, in 2017 the LA Times presented a robust look on the state of labor for California farms. Larger farms are offering attractive employment packages including higher wages and benefits like 401k plans, health insurance, paid vacation, holidays and sick days, and subsidized housing and ESL classes. It’s not enough. Silvarado Farming raised the starting wage for farm hands to $14.50/hour and was willing to go up to $16/hour but still had trouble attracting workers. The implications are that farming in this region will have to change if the industry is to survive. Farmers will need to make decisions about whether to change the produce they grow, abandon operations in the US and move them abroad, continue to rely on the temporary visa system and trust that they might be successful in the visa lottery, or replace workers with machines.
Smaller farms or farms that aren’t growing high-value crops like grapes or avocados are looking toward mechanization, downsizing, or less labor intensive crops. Faced with stiff competition from larger farms, Jeff Klein ripped out 113,000 Chardonnay grapevines that covered his land. In 2013 he had a crew of 100 workers and wineries were paying $700/ton of grapes. Klein was able to make a profit paying his employees the minimum wage of $8/hr. In 2016, his grapes sold for only $350/ton, and he saw his labor force reduced to about 45 employees. He’s been out-competed by the subsidies offered by larger farms. In October 2017, he began the process of replacing what remains of his grapes with almonds and olives, which he can maintain with fewer employees. Another farmer is exploring mechanizing his farm. Brad Goehring is changing the way he plants his vineyards to allow for mechanical pruning and maintenance. He believes he can reduce his workforce by 85% if successful. And if not, he will also look for a new crop–an almond farm could be managed by three employees.