Zero Trimmed Hedges? How American Landscapers Found Themselves Reeling

Changes to the seasonal H-2B visa program by the Trump administration have left seasonal businesses across America without an adequate supply of foreign workers. In return, these small businesses have been severely damaged, as a labor shortageshows Americans do not want low-wage jobs.

Zero Trimmed Hedges? How American Landscapers Found Themselves Reeling

Landscaping and the food industry have been hit the hardest — from lawn care companies in Pittsburg to crab houses in Maryland — small business owners are in shock as their foreign workforce is no more.

The administration’s decision to change the H-2B system from first-come, first-served to a lottery forced many small, American companies to lose out on their seasonal foreign workers, causing them to lose customers and profit as vendors turned to competitors.

Brian Friend spoke with The Wall Street Journal about how his small business canceled $80,000 in landscaping contracts because he could not find enough workers.

“It was a low point,” said the 42-year-old Mr. Friend, who runs Sylvan Gardens Landscape LLC in Pittsburgh.

Friend is not alone in this worker shortage crisis, many landscaping companies across the country are facing similar threats, spurred by low levels of unemployment and high demand for visas under the H-2B program. He noted that higher wages and generous bonuses did not attract American workers.

Zero Trimmed Hedges? How American Landscapers Found Themselves Reeling

Brian Friend, owner of landscaping service Sylvan Gardens in Pittsburgh, estimates that he has lost $500,000 in revenue this year because his visa applications for immigrant workers weren’t approved. (Source/ WSJ) 

Richard Cafaro, the owner of a small business, Lawn Maintenance Services Co. in Pittsburg, said he shut down operations because his company did not receive any of the seasonal foreign-worker visas it requested. For nearly two decades, Cafaro relied upon the H-2B system to fill a majority of his field crews.

“I just had no path forward,” said Mr. Cafaro, 47. “It’s so frustrating.”

Customers were not happy. WSJ interviewed Theresa Dozzi, a 20-year customer, who watched her 3-acre yard around her 10,000 square-foot brick mansion deteriorate. She said the grass grew so high it became “unsightly.”

“It was a nightmare,” she added.

With a tight labor market and visa shortages, WSJ notes that many industries that relied on foreign seasonal workers have been badly damaged this year, especially Maryland’s crab-picking industry to New England restaurants to Michigan fudge shops. But the largest victim has been the $82 billion-a-year landscaping industry, which is the largest user of the visa program — accounting for 50 percent of all such visas certified by the government per year.

Zero Trimmed Hedges? How American Landscapers Found Themselves Reeling

The visa program, which now has a cap, was remarkably oversubscribed in 2018 and left many landscapers across the country short-handed. US business requested 167,000 H-2B visas in the first three quarters of 2018, exceeding the congressional cap of 66,000 workers for the year.

Philip Brua, who operates CitiTurf LLC. in Plano, Texas, received about 50 percent of the 110 visas he requested for in 2018. That induced an internal crisis where Brua’s company could not fulfill all 5,000 landscaping contracts.

He said that his company tried to hire locally, but only one person showed up. Mr. Brua even raised wages by 40 percent in the last several years, but it has yet attracted local workers. In return, he canceled 846 contracts and said he expects to cancel 1,000 more next year if the labor shortage crisis continues. This translates to a $2 million and $4 million loss for the company in 2018.

“We spent 14 years building this business and it can all be gone in a second,” he said.

Aubrey Vincent, operates Lindy’s Seafood, a 40-year-old small business in the Trump-voting crab town of Fishing Creek, Maryland, told NBC that she had exhausted efforts to recruit American workers after receiving none of the 104 visas she requested this year. Her current staff has only been able to process 25 percent of the company’s normal volume of seafood, devastating her bottom line. Her full-time American employees in other departments have been working overtime to keep the business afloat.

Zero Trimmed Hedges? How American Landscapers Found Themselves Reeling

Celia Serna, a guest worker at the J.M. Clayton processing plant in Cambridge, Md., picks crabs. (Source/ Baltimore Sun)

“I haven’t been able to give them vacations,” she said. “Everybody’s working way too much, and we don’t have enough hands to give everyone the relief they need.”

Bill Sieling, a director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association in Maryland, said that the seafood industry in the region had been crushed.

“Most of these companies can weather this year, but if this whole thing continues into next year, which is our nightmare scenario, you’re going to see the end of this industry,” he warned.

To sum up, small businesses across the country are faced with a shortage of temporary American workers because of the Trump administration’s limits on hiring foreign workers. Many of these companies have tried to source local labor but it turns out Americans do not want low wage jobs. President Trump has touted his “America First” agenda at rallies and at White House events. As a candidate, he often spoke on the campaign trail about his desire to prioritize American workers over immigrants seeking jobs. Interesting enough, the Trump Organization’s properties have on multiple occasions tried to hire temporary foreign workers through the H-2B visa program, according to the Department of Labor’s records.
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