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As Economy Grows, Colorado Companies Rely Increasingly On Foreign Workers

Esther Honig
Jose de Jesus Gallegos Alvarez said the odds of being chosen for the H-2B program seemed impossible. "There are millions of us Mexicans," he said. "To be able to have this opportunity was very difficult."

In early November 25-year-old Jose de Jesus Gallegos Alvarez mopped the wood floor of a pilates studio at The Club at Flying Horse, a private country club in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

For him and the rest of the housekeeping staff, a day's work involves a lot mopping, but also window cleaning and towel folding. As winter settles in, the volume of work has diminished; summer is the peak season for the club.

For Gallegos Alvarez, it was the final week of his eight-month H-2B visa.

"(The visa)'s a huge help," he said. "It's what we Mexicans call 'the American dream.'"

As one of the several thousand H-2B workers that came to Colorado this year, his hourly wage of $10.36 an hour will go a lot further back home. He's counting down the days until he can return to Jalisco, Mexico to see his wife and two children. One was born after he left.

"The hardest things for me is how it affects my family," he said.

As the economy has grown since the 2008 recession, so too has demand for H-2B workers.This year, U.S. employers submitted a total of 128,008 requests for H-2B workers, far outweighing the annual cap of 66,000 permitted by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952.

According to data from the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, in 2017 the state of Texas received the highest number of H-2B workers, followed by Virginia and Colorado.

Credit Esther Honig / KUNC
Fani Yudi Corona Zuñiga said the wages she earned during her time as an H-2B worker will go towards her daughter's studies and completing construction on her home.

In Colorado, much of the demand for H-2B comes from the landscaping and hospitality industries.

Todd Ahl owns Labor Solutions Inc. in northern Colorado and helps employers complete the complex application process for H-2B workers. To qualify, the positions must be seasonal and the company has to prove they were unable to find U.S. workers. Ads are placed in both a local newspaper and posted for six weeks on a national jobs website. This year Ahl said he posted around 3,800 jobs that paid between $13.48 and $23.72, depending on the position. Wages are determined by the Department of Labor. 

"There was six applicants," said Ahl. "Of those six applicants that applied, zero showed up for the first interview."

A supporter of the current administration, Ahl said he often finds himself defending the H-2B visa program to those who assume it's giving away American jobs.

"They see an immigrant coming into the country. They're taking a job, they're working that job, and they feel, 'Well, why isn't a U.S. worker doing that job?' That's not the case," he said.

The program is intended for low-skilled seasonal workers who typically return after several months, but can apply to stay in the country for up to three years.

As for many of the businesses Ahl serves, he said the H-2B program is their last resort for a reliable and authorized workforce.

Still not everyone accepts foreign labor as an acceptable solution.

Credit Esther Honig / KUNC
At this private country club, the summer months are the busiest and require the help of seasonal workers.

Jeff Zax admits he's no expert when it comes to immigration or the H-2B program, but as an economist at the University of Colorado Boulder, he sees a textbook example of supply and demand. He called the notion of a labor shortage "a misconception."

"What (employers are) really complaining about is not that they can't get any workers," he said. "It's that they can't get any workers at what they're used to paying."

With unemployment at 3.7 percentnationally and3.2 percent in Colorado, Zax says employers now have to compete for workers - and that typically means paying more.

A predicament for business owners

An agronomist, Dan Hawkins oversees the 18-hole golf course at the same Colorado Springs country club where Gallegos Alvarez works. He sees how higher wages could attract more U.S. workers, but like many businesses, he said he's operating under a budget. Higher wages would push prices up and ultimately lead to fewer club members, he said.

"We are a business," said Hawkins. "We have a fiscal responsibility for our ownership to make sure that we do we the best we can with the dollars that we are allocated."

For over a dozen years, Hawkins has relied on the visa program for his landscaping crew during the golf season. This year he requested 25 H-2B workers. He did not get any.

"Are we able to get people outside this program? We did this year. Was it a struggle? It was a huge struggle," he said.

Credit Esther Honig / KUNC
The 90-acre golf course at the club at Flying Horse requires around the clock maintenance during golf season. Seven days a week, a group of 20 workers will mow and irrigate the grounds.

Hawkins got through the summer, mainly by hiring students on break. He said he lost a lot of time interviewing and hiring dozens of candidates, who then quit a few days into the job. Daily start time is 5 a.m. and the work consists of mowing grass and raking sand.

"It's not a glamorous job," said Hawkins.

Due to the high demand in 2018, H-2B visas were awarded via a lottery - a first in the program's history. After the 66,000 visas allocated for the 2018 fiscal year had been claimed, Congress approved an additional 15,000, citing concern that businesses may "likely suffer irreparable harm." But those additional visas came too late in the season for Hawkins.

"Are we able to get people outside this program? We did this year. Was it a struggle? It was a huge struggle."

His predicament is not unique, which is why many industries including landscapers have lobbied for Congress to increase the cap on H-2B.

"Either lift it or raise it, because it just doesn't make any sense anymore with the way the economy is," he said.

It's unclear if Congress will take up the issue in 2019, but there's a chance a rule known as the returning worker exemption could be reinstated. That would free up space for more visas as H-2B workers hired in the previous fiscal year are not counted towards the cap in the current year.

Hawkins says the club spent $15,000 preparing applications for the visa workers they never got. Of that $5,000 was non-refundable.  

He says they'll wager the money again next year if it means a chance at getting their workers. Next year the club plans to open a new golf course and lodge, and Hawkins' need for landscapers and housekeeping will only increase.

Editors note: an earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that the club at flying horse spent $15,000 for H2B workers that they were unable to recoup.   

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