US plans $4/hour pay hike for foreign workers

In an act likely to reduce the number of landscapers, hotels, country clubs, and other businesses that try to import legally-permitted foreign workers each year, the US Department of Labor today published a proposed rule that will boost wages under the program by an average $4.38 an hour, for up to 66,000 non-US laborers working here.

"This means a citizen or a legal immigrant will be more willing to take these jobs," said Nelson Carrasquillo, president of Glassboro-based Comite de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agricolas, a 31-year-old farmworkers' association that claims 4,000 members in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

"These jobs, in landscaping companies in Cherry Hill and places like that, paid $7-$8.50 an hour, generally, in New Jersey. Now they'll have to pay maybe $10 an hour, maybe more," if the bosses still want to bring in labor from Mexico, Central America, and other countries because he claims he can't find local workers willing to do the job, Carrasquillo added.

The ruling follows a ruling by Philadelphia federal judge Louis Pollak in August overturning the Labor Department's previous standards for paying workers imported under the federal H-2B temporary worker program. 

In a lawsuit against Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, CATA had accused the government of discriminating against U.S.-based farmworkers by allowing foreigners to come here at artificially low wages that didn't really reflect local pay rates as the law requires. Friends of Farmworkers, a Philadelphia nonprofit law firm led by veteran labor lawyer Arthur Read, represented the workers. Judge Pollock agreed.

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.

The foreign worker program is supposed to protect U.S. jobs by setting wages at levels above what American worker earn, so employers will only demand them if they really need them, and won't be tempted to import a foreign work force because it's cheap.

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. The increase will cost employers up to $759 million next year if the program is fully enrolled..

More than 200 Philadelphia-area companies employed temporary workers under the H-2B visa program in fiscal 2009, according to the Labor Department. Examples:

- American Athletic Courts Inc., Vincentown, NJ, 60 laborers, at $17.01 an hour
- Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson N.J., 250 amusement workers, at $7.15 an hour
- Realty Landscaping Corp., Newtown, Pa., 200 laborers at $8.61-$9.40 an hour
- Philadelphia Cricket Club, Flourtown, 35 laborers at $9.21 an hour
- Philadelphia Country Club, Gladwyne, 50 laborers at $8.01-$9.80 an hour
- C.M. Jones Inc., Exton, 100 laborers at $9.40 an hour
- Valleycrest Landscape Maintenance, Norristown, 80 laborers at $9.40 an hour
- DuPont Co., Wilmington, 40 laborers at $9.11 an hour