You've probably never heard of a H-2B guest worker visa — but you likely have enjoyed the yield it produces. Like one of those melt-in-your-mouth Gold Brick Eggs from Elmer Candy. Or a night out in New Orleans, kicked off with drinks at one of the newer hotels.
The federal H-2B program allows American companies to bring in guest workers — legal immigrant labor — to take jobs no one else wants. For a domestic business to use the program, it must prove that local workers don't want the jobs. The nonagricultural, temporary visas expire after 10 months, at which point the guest workers, typically from Mexico and Central America, must return home.
Nationwide, only 66,000 guest workers may enter the country each year under the H-2B program. In 2011, Louisiana hosted more than 3,100, largely in seafood processing plants, construction and certain food-preparation jobs. Now, however, some employers in those industries are contemplating closure or relocation — thanks to two new regulations promulgated by the U.S. Department of Labor.
The first new rule, commonly called the "wage rule," would increase pay across the board for all H-2B guest workers. In Louisiana, that could mean wage increases ranging from 32 percent to 100 percent, based on a recent economic impact study conducted by the LSU AgCenter.
Currently, prevailing wages always eclipse the U.S. minimum wage, and at certain times even surpass the $8-per-hour threshold for seafood processors.
"I don't know any business that could absorb a 32 percent wage increase and stay solvent," says state Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain. "If these wage increases are allowed to stand, it will probably put Louisiana's last few remaining crawfish tail meat processors out of business. And that's a shame, because Louisiana created the crawfish business."
The second new regulation, the "program rule," would force employers to guarantee guest workers will be paid 75 percent of their wages, even if they work less than three-quarters of a week. This rule has the harshest rub for Louisiana seafood processors, since it means guest workers have to be paid even if a hurricane temporarily shuts down an industry.
For now, opponents can take comfort in the fact that the two rules have been delayed, probably at least until November, pending a Florida court injunction. The Labor Department is appealing.
Elsewhere, U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, and others have been able to forestall similar rules in the past by threatening to pull funding from the Labor Department. Such options are now limited. "One way to avoid significant expenses to our region's small businesses is for [the Labor Department] to withdraw these ill-advised rules," Boustany says.
Frank Randol, an Acadiana-based crawfish processor, says if the uncertainty persists, he'll sit out a season. To date, he's already reduced some costs in preparation for the new rules. "I'm making plans the best way I can," Randol says. "If I knew what the ballgame is, it would be easier. Next year, I don't know what I'm going to do."
If push eventually comes to shove, Randol says he has an "option" to move operations to Mexico. It's a familiar theme, one that has been repeated to a certain extent by Rob Nelson of the Elmer Candy Corp. in Ponchatoula. Nelson says he needs 175 seasonal workers around Christmas time to prepare his Valentine orders. Elmer's is the second largest candy company in North America in terms of boxed candy for the February holiday.
Out of the 175 seasonal workers he hires, Nelson says he usually finds about 40 locally. That's cheaper for him, since H-2B-participating businesses must pay the feds $1,000 for every guest worker they want to use. If labor costs increase and the regulatory environment doesn't change, Nelson says he may have to relocate.
"We're not looking right now," he says. "We don't want to move. We've been here for 157 years and were founded in New Orleans. ... I just hope this thing gets better."
On the other side of the issue are groups like Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a migrant worker rights organization. Executive director Rachel Micah-Jones argued that the new rules prevent over-recruiting and then benching workers and prohibiting employers from retaliating against workers who file complaints.
"This rule is an important victory for workers," Micah-Jones says.
Randol says he's more concerned about his own rights and how a national debate over immigration led by President Barack Obama and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis has come to dictate the way small business owners operate on the bayou. "One day we're all going to wake up and realize that it was our own country that did this to us," he says. "But I'm a survivor. They won't put me out of business."
Jeremy Alford is a journalist in Baton Rouge. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @alfordwrites.