Bob Grover, President of Pacific Landscape Management, talks about his experience with the H-2B visa program.
Earlier this summer, the Trump Administration increased the number of H-2B visas by 15,000. These visas serve temporary workers in seafood, landscaping, construction, forestry and similar industries.
In Oregon, about 500 jobs are filled through the program. This year 14 applications for workers were submitted. Hillsboro-based Pacific Landscape Management was one of the applicants.
I talked with President Bob Grover about his experience with the program, why he advocates for H-2B workers and how Trump Administration tweaks are making life more difficult for companies that rely on the immigrant worker program. [Responses have been edited for clarity.]
OB: When did Pacific Landscape begin using H-2B visas?
Grover: We started around 10 or 12 years ago. We used them for three years during the great economy. Back then it was difficult for us to find enough seasonal workers. When the economy slowed, we didn’t need it as much and probably wouldn’t have even qualified. When the economy picked up again, we did use them the last three years.
OB: How many workers do you typically hire?
Grover: It’s grown as we’ve grown as an organization. Currently 55 of our staff of 225 [are H-2B workers]. Basically, our entire seasonal workforce.
OB: Do you ever have trouble filling your visas once they’ve been approved?
Grover: We’ve never had a problem finding people. We recruit from Mexico.
The interesting part of the program, and it's not unlike other immigrants just coming over here otherwise, is it’s kind of a friends and family program. Most of our workers are referred by friends who are here. Their friends and family come in on these visas to work.
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OB: Describe the application process. You have to ensure no local workers will fill the positions, correct?
Grover: We have to advertise through newspapers like the Oregonian or job posting sites, but also through Oregon Employment Department. Anyone that accepts that job takes away a visa. Which makes sense. We had three people apply for and accept those positions [this year]. Two of those three are still with us, since April.
In 2016 we had two people qualify, and they were hired. They didn’t last more than two weeks.
In 2015, two or three qualified, and neither of them lasted more than a couple of weeks.
Our positions are reasonable paying — $15.14 an hour is not a horrible wage for unskilled labor today. But the work isn’t the most desirable. [H-2B visas also] help us keep ahead of the law to make sure we have documented employees.
OB: Did you apply for additional visas when the Trump administration raised the cap?
Grover: No. I can only speak as landscaper, but our season starts in the spring. That law was passed in May. It takes about a month to get visas granted and get the people here. It would be the middle of August before someone could logically get those visas. I’m not sure at this point those visas would have done me any good.
It’s bittersweet. I’ll be interested to see if those 15,000 are taken and if opponents say, ‘Well we granted you visas and you didn’t use them.’ We’re hoping it’s good news now that that law is passed. Now that they’ve done that, they might do it sooner in the year.
OB: The returning worker exemption lets businesses hire previous workers without counting against the 66,000 program cap. But the Trump Administration didn’t approve an extension of the program. How will this change impact your business?
Grover: They essentially cut the number of visas in half. [In the past] I could get all 55 of [my workers] back without being impacted by the cap. If I wanted new workers, they would have to come in under the cap.
Bob Grover meets with Rep. Greg Walden in Washington D.C.
OB: You are active in lobbying for the program, correct? [Grover serves on the board of the National Association of Landscape Professionals.]
Grover: Our national trade association has a day on the Hill in the early part of July every year. There were about 400 of us in Washington who spoke with our legislators about several issues. The No. 1 priority was to encourage congress to continue to support the H-2B visa program and to reauthorize the returning worker exemption that had been operating for about 10 years and did not make it for 2017. We’re hoping the returning worker exemption gets made into permanent law or gets put into 2018.
OB: Are Oregon legislators supportive of the program?
Grover: Sen. Jeff Merkley had been a fairly vocal opponent of the program. Around 10 years ago there was a bill funding a program that was supposed to help employ Oregonians. But a contractor hired H-2B visa workers [and paid their wages using federal stimulus money]. Merkley opposed it at the time, and he’s never got over that.
They’ve had several changes [to the H-2B program] requiring better documentation of need in ensuing years. But he still opposed it because he doesn’t believe there are enough safeguards to protect from abuse.
Sen. Ron Wyden, he’s not a promoter but he supports the program. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici I believe is not an ardent supporter but she’s not opposed to it. I also met with Rep. Greg Walden. He did give his personal audience and he said he’s supportive of it.
When I say all three of the four I spoke with are supportive, that’s somewhat guarded support. Our whole goal, of the trade association, is to put names and faces and real experience into the legislators’ hands. Let’s say 100 in one abused [the system] and 99 did well; let’s talk about those responsible businesses that are following the appropriate rules.
Bob Grover (right) with his business partner Elias Godinez
OB: Why do you feel so strongly about the immigrant worker program?
Grover: Partly because on the philosophical scale, America is an immigrant society. We’ve always taken in immigrants, and immigrants from Europe and all over do a lot of the hard work and do it willingly. The work ethic that most immigrants have, in my opinion, has stronger respect and work ethic than the typical American.
I don’t want to be down on Americans, but I’ve worked with immigrants my whole life, and I’m proud to be associated with people who are trying to help their families back home. I love immigrants.
OB: Not everyone feels the same way.
Grover: I believe our immigration system is totally messed up. There are somewhere between 15 and 20 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. We have oversimplified documentation and no reasonable way for an immigrant to get legal here. We need to fix that system.
OB: It's an enormously complex problem.
Grover: I’m not sure building a wall solves any problem. I’m not sure giving everyone access to citizenship solves the problem. [The solution is] somewhere in the middle. We need a system that allows immigrants to come here and work and go home. That’s what most want to do. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s like getting manufacturing done overseas.