N.H. employers get their foreign workers, and the workers get a raise

A dispute over the workers’ prevailing wage led to a court ruling in March that held up visa processing

New Hampshire employers who depend on hiring foreign workers for seasonal help through the federal H-2B visa program are going to have to pay those employees higher wages.

That is relatively good news, and not just for the workers. Employers were facing an even higher wage hike, and right before the summer season it looked as if they wouldn’t be able to hire them at all. A dispute over what should be the foreign workers’ prevailing wage led to a court ruling in March that held up processing visas for the workers until right around Memorial Day.

“I found out two weeks ago,” said Christian Coulter, general manager of the Bald Peak Colony Club, a private golf club in Melvin Village that hired 32 such workers as waiters, kitchen workers and landscapers from countries including Mexico, South Africa, Jamaica and Ireland. Coulter spoke to NHBR on June 18. His season started on Memorial Day and ends on Columbus Day.

If the visa processing delays were to continue, said Coulter, “it would have been devastating. We have nobody locally to do that work. We had already hired the kids.”.

Some 13 other New Hampshire businesses were in the same situation. The firms had lined up certified H-2B visas for about 276 foreign workers. Among them were the Naswa Resort in Weirs Beach, which was awaiting visas for 44 cooks, waiters and maids, and Morin’s Landscaping in Hollis, which was awaiting visas for 40 laborers.

The demand for such workers appears to be steady in the state. In fiscal 2012, some 385 visas were granted to 21 firms in New Hampshire (out of 414 applications) and in 2011, 342 visas were granted out of 466 applications by 20 firms.

Still, some local companies that did participate have walked away from the program because of increased regulations.

“We stopped using them,” said Stephen Hilliard, managing director of Omni Mt. Washington Hotel. “The process is cumbersome and expensive and the rules are changing constantly.”

The H-2B visa program – like other programs relating to immigration – has come under a lot more scrutiny lately, especially from labor groups that have charged that employers are grabbing cheap labor from outside the country.

This is far from the truth, said Coulter. Not many people are willing to work five months out of the year besides students, and “unlike the old days, college kids don’t stay until Labor Day,” he said.

High school students are usually not trained and not reliable, he said.

“They don’t want to do dishes; they don’t want to bus dishes; they don’t want to work a half day for breakfast and come back for dinner. They have summer plans. They go away with their parents for vacation.”

However, those on H-2B visas can often get six-month extensions on the visas for a total of three years, and they often work the winters in Florida and other warmer climates and summers in New England — or at least they could, until this latest controversy held things up.

The controversy stems from a provision that requires employers to pay the prevailing wage for the area. The federal Department of Labor increased that prevailing wage average for private clubs in 2011, and the National Association of Clubs filed a lawsuit. Last March, a judge essentially threw out the prevailing wage scheme altogether, causing a regulatory tangle between the Labor Department and the Department of Homeland Security, which ceased processing the H-2B visa applications.

This caused groups like the clubs association and the National Restaurant Association to pressure Congress to get the program rolling again, which it did in the nick of time.

The wages did go up, but not by as much as employers feared. Coulter used to have to pay his food preparers $9 an hour. Now he is required to pay them $10.44 an hour. The wages for waiters went up from $9 to $9.87 and gardeners increased from $9.30 to $10.44.

That’s not enough for Coulter to drop the program, particularly at this late date, “but if the prevailing wages continue to go up, something is going to have to give. We can’t accept 10 to 15 percent in raises every year.”

M.G. Guruge contributed research to this article.

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