Many bosses prefer hiring foreigners for summer jobs

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July 25, 2004|By JULIE CLAIRE DIOP

I REMEMBER the grim searches for work in the summers after my sophomore and junior years of high school in the late 1980s. I went from store to store in my neighborhood filling out applications. I never got a single call.

Things haven't changed much. The teen unemployment rate is 17.2 percent, compared with 5.6 percent for the whole population. More than 1.2 million teens were actively seeking employment in May, and about 5.5 million people between the ages of 16 and 24 aren't working, aren't in the military or aren't in school, according Paul Harrington, a Northeastern University labor economist. That 5.5 million doesn't count students looking for summer work, so the size of the potential labor pool could be even larger.

Yet many employers insist they cannot find enough workers for summer jobs if the government does not lift its cap of 66,000 H-2B visas, which allow foreigners to fill non-agricultural seasonal jobs, such as washing dishes in a New England resort or crewing on a fishing boat in the Pacific Northwest.

Greg Bugal, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association, says his members are scrambling to fill jobs previously held by H-2B holders, mostly from Jamaica and Eastern Europe. "There really are not enough people to fill the jobs," he said.

The government first granted H-2B visas 14 years ago, and last year gave out 78,000, exceeding its cap by 13,000. This year the Department of Homeland Security enforced the cap, and the government stopped granting visas in early March.

Employers cannot apply for visas until 120 days before their seasons start, which means that ski resorts had no trouble getting the visas they needed, but summer resorts in Northern states are short-handed.

Employers cannot grant H-2B visas unless they offer foreigners "prevailing wages." For Maine innkeepers, that is $8 an hour for dishwashers, $9.50 for housekeepers and $11 for line cooks. H-2B visa holders usually pay for their plane tickets and housing out of their wages.

Although hiring locally is much simpler than hiring from abroad, economist Harrington says employers often will look abroad even if there are local workers available. Employers "have a strong preference for foreign workers" because of their work ethic, he said.

Maria Candler of James River Grounds Management Inc., a Virginia landscape management firm, said she has tried to hire help locally but has had much more success with foreign workers. Her firm employs 180 people, and this year she applied for 140 H-2B visas. So far she has used 120, hiring mainly Mexican immigrants.

She pays roughly $150 per employee to a firm that takes care of the recruiting, paperwork and application fees. In addition, many employers pay a fee of $1,000 to accelerate the hiring process, covering all their applications for the season.

Candler says the visa program doesn't increase unemployment among Americans.

"It's a mistake to connect unemployment to this visa program," she said. "Physical labor jobs are demeaning. ... [Many Americans] would rather be unemployed."

In countries like Mexico, she said, people respect physical labor. Over the past eight years, she had only a handful of leads from advertisements she placed in her local paper, she said, and none of the candidates worked out.

Joanna Carson of the American Immigration Lawyers' Association said that employers tell her most U.S. teenagers would rather stay home surfing the Web than accept a summer job.

But Harrington is not convinced. He has heard of several instances when American people applied for seasonal jobs and were told the openings were only for foreigners.

E-mail Julie Diop at

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