Reps demand low wages for foreign workers in US jobs

Lobbyists for US companies that import 66,000 low-wage foreign workers for the least-popular jobs in America are mounting a last-minute drive to keep their pay from rising.

In a letter to US Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, US Sen. Barbara Mikluski, D-Md., US Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., and 46 others in Congress say their constituents should be able to continue importing cheap foreign labor at current wages under Labor's H-2B program, and the Obama administration should delay or abandon raising target wages that are designed to discourage employers from using the foriegners if US workers are available.

Under US law, foreign workers are only admitted if bosses can prove they're willing to pay higher wages than qualified local Americans will work for. 

A decision by US Judge Louis Pollak in Philadelphia last year found the current rates were too low, which means companies could use the program to replace US workers with low-paid foreigners. Higher rates are an incentive to use Americans instead.

The judge ordered Labor to boost rates an average of $4.38 an hour, effective Oct. 1. As I wrote last Spring: "The proposal would boost Philadelphia-area pay for dishwashers employed under the program, from $7.90 an hour, to $9.24; for janitors, from $9.23 an hour, to $13.02; for landscaping workers, from $9.84 and hour, to $13.88; and for roofers, from $14.12, to $21.38." 

But, according to the letter from Congress to Solis, the cheap foreign labor program "is a lifeline for scores of small and seasonal business around the country" that are "frequently unable to find enough local workers to fill their temporary and seasonal job openings, even in today's tough economic climate." Higher wages "could threaten the economic survival of many small and seasonal businesses" and lead to "full-time job losses."

Lawyers for Louisiana tree cutters and shellfish packers have also filed a federal lawsuit to block the new rates. NYTimes story on industry website here. The Philadelphia case was brought by CATA Inc., a South Jersey'based farmworkers' group that sees the "guest worker" program as competition that depresses wages and eliminates jobs for local workers.

As I wrote previously, "The H-2 program employs up to one in eight U.S. landscaping workers, one in 30 janitors, one in 100 casino and amusements workers, one in 250 construction workers, and one in 500 restaurant workers, according to the Labor Department...

"More than 200 Philadelphia-area companies employed temporary workers under the H-2B visa program in fiscal 2009." Examples included Six Flags Great Aventure in Jackson, NJ; DuPont Co., Wilmington; Philadelphia Country Club, Gladwyne; and dozens of landscaping and amusement firms who say they can't find Americans willing to work at the old lower rates, let alone the proposed higher rates.

I called several of those employers, most of whom declined to comment (DuPont confirmed participation). Two suburban landscaping contractors who would only speak if they weren't identified said they felt the higher rates were punishing them for trying to import workers legally, even as competitors use cheaper foreign workers who lack out US papers.

Some readers, on the other hand, were surprised to hear American jobs are going begging, at over $10 an hour, even as US unemployment remains close to 10%.