DeFazio, Merkley want more focus on hiring local labor

By DAN WHEAT

Capital Press

Bills by Oregon lawmakers to tighten rules of the federal H-2B guestworker program probably won't go far this year, a Washington, D.C., labor attorney says.

The American Jobs in American Forests Act, HR4159, and its companion Senate Bill 2167 were introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio and Sen. Jeff Merkley, respectively, a month ago. Both are Democrats.

The bills would require companies to more aggressively advertise for local U.S. forest workers before attempting to hire foreign workers. State workforce agencies would be required to certify that companies met all H-2B visa requirements and that no local workers were available.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor's inspector general said more than $7 million in federal stimulus money intended to provide jobs for unemployed Oregonians was used to hire 254 foreign workers. Merkley and DeFazio called that an abuse of the program.

Their bills are unlikely to get far this year since it is an election year, said Leon Sequeira, a Washington, D.C., labor attorney and former assistant secretary at DOL in the Bush administration.

It's important to note, Sequeira said, that DOL did not accuse any employer of violating the H-2B program but that the inspector general's report expressed opinions about what the regulations should require.

As with the tree fruit industry using the H-2A program, forest industry employers have a hard time finding Americans willing to take short-term, manual-labor jobs that are outside in difficult weather and sometimes steep terrain, Sequeira said.

Both programs are temporary visas for seasonal work. The H-2A program is for agricultural jobs. H-2B is for nonagricultural jobs. The main industries using it are forestry, landscaping, amusement and hospitality, he said. H-2B is limited to 66,000 workers a year nationwide. H-2A is not limited, he said.

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