Vail Valley businesses hurting while feds delay issuing seasonal work visas
May 20, 2018
EAGLE COUNTY — Local landscaping, paving and other firms were supposed to have some additional seasonal help by now. It hasn't happened yet.
A delay by the federal government in releasing more temporary work visas — called "H-2B" — is hitting local businesses hard.
Michael Hasse, of Double M Asphalt & Coatings, says he's missing five to seven of his usual seasonal workers. That's left the staff on hand — including Hasse — working long, hard days in a season that's dependent on warm temperatures.
Mike Stephens, of SHC Nursery and Landscape, said he's missing about 20 people this summer, and has missed them for nearly two months now.
Both businesses depend on seasonal foreign employees who use seasonal visas to work legally in this country.
There's long been a cap on those visas — only 33,000 every six months.
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Delayed by the thousands
In March, Congress approved an increase in the number of visas issued. But Amy Novak, an immigration-employment attorney in Vail, said the federal bureaucracy has delayed issuing those thousands of visas.
"The people this is harming aren't temporary non-immigrants, but U.S. business owners," Novak said.
Haase, who's been in business for about 25 years, said it's always been hard to find seasonal labor, especially in businesses such as his, that require hard physical work.
About 10 years ago, Haase started using H-2B visas. While the process is cumbersome, it's still better than using illegal immigrants, he said.
"For one thing, it's illegal," Haase said. There are further complications in trying to account for cash payments to people who aren't supposed to be in this country.
With H-2B visas, "everything's legit," he said.
But the past two years have been more difficult, Haase said. It's always been hard to find U.S. workers for the jobs Haase has, but with the current low unemployment rates, it's even harder.
Stephens agreed that it's hard to find U.S. workers.
"We all try to hire American," Stephens said. "They're just not out there."
Cash is tough
Now that Stephens' business has come to rely on H-2B employees, it's about the only route he can take.
And, without workers, business suffers. Some businesses try to hire illegal immigrants just to get work done, Stephens said. Again, though, those wages aren't taxed, and paying cash can be tough.
There's also an impact on the broader economy.
With 20 people on Stephens' crew waiting for their visas, "that's 20 guys who aren't shopping at City Market in Eagle," he said
Haase said his crew is also waiting for authorization to come to the U.S.
The delay is making it hard to pick up the slack.
"I'm pushing (the crew) because I'm short," Haase said.
The current tough situation is getting tougher as time passes, Stephens said.
And, he added, federal officials don't seem to understand the situation.
Stephens noted that he recently read a column in the Vail Daily about the value of small businesses from U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton.
That column rings hollow in Stephens' ears.
"I've called (Tipton's office) several times and I have yet to have anyone call me back," he said.
Meanwhile, there are job sites that are still untouched, and the crew on hand is working a lot of nine- and 10-hour days, Stephens said.
Novak said Haase and Stephens aren't alone. Many of her clients are in the same situation, she said.
"The more time drags on, the more challenged these businesses are," she said.
Asked about solutions, Novak said Congress needs to work on a permanent fix — particularly when it comes to the number of visas issued.
The system has also become more cumbersome over the past few years, she said.
That's affecting a wide variety of businesses. "It's landscaping, housekeeping, massage therapists, restaurants and hotels," she said.
Once the federal logjam breaks, Haase said his people can be on the job in two or three weeks.
But that's more of a short season gone.
"We're almost two months without these guys," Stephens said. "It's not a good deal."
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 and firstname.lastname@example.org.