It’s a bad summer for Colorado landscaping businesses. Already struggling with severe worker shortages, they’re watching the potential employee pool shrink even further thanks to President Trump’s suspension of H2-B worker visas.
Summer is their busiest season, and despite high unemployment statewide thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, landscaping companies have hundreds of openings they can’t fill — and they’re being forced to turn away projects worth millions as a result.
Trump’s June 22 executive order “suspending entry of aliens who present a risk to the U.S. labor market following the coronavirus outbreak” applies to several types of work visas, including H-2B visas. Those visas allow foreign non-agricultural workers to work for a U.S. business during its peak season, for a set amount of time.
They bring in forest and conservation workers, maids and housekeeping cleaners, meat cutters and construction laborers, but the majority of all H-2B visa workers — 44 percent in the 2019 fiscal year, according to the Office of Foreign Labor Certification — come to the U.S. for landscaping and groundskeeping jobs. No other H-2B certified occupation accounts for more than 7.5 percent of workers.
Many of those laborers end up in Colorado, which had the second-highest number of H-2B visa workers in 2019 with nearly 7,000, trailing only the much larger Texas.
John McMahon, CEO of the professional landscaping membership organization Associated Landscaping Contractors of Colorado, said the industry depends heavily on H-2B workers during its peak season, which begins in early April and lasts through July.
But even before the executive order, many Colorado companies had not received the workers they’d applied for. McMahon said the pandemic caused slowdowns in visa processing at foreign consulates, which led to some businesses not receiving all or any of their workers under the first disbursement of the cap. Then, in April, 35,000 supplemental visas previously approved for this fiscal year by the Department of Homeland Security were placed on an indefinite hold due to the pandemic, halting 20,000 people who were supposed to begin work on April 1, and 15,000 who would’ve started May 15.
As a result, many landscaping businesses were already struggling to keep up with demand.
“A lot of our companies, especially our larger ones, are literally turning down millions of dollars of projects,” McMahon said.
“And those projects aren’t being picked up by other people, they’re just being deferred further down the road.”
McMahon said the landscaping industry didn’t face closures during the pandemic, since its businesses were deemed essential services and laborers work outdoors where there’s plenty of room for social distancing.
“We’re going gangbusters for the most part,” McMahon said. “Any project that’s not being done is because [business owners] are forecasting not to get their workers, and therefore they’re turning down jobs and customers are upset. But we just don’t have the workforce to help them.”
Timberline Landscaping in Colorado Springs did not receive any of the H-2B workers it applied for this year, after receiving 85 in 2019. With such a stark decline in labor, the company is facing a massive backlog of projects and is currently booked out until October.
“The H-2B program gave us experienced teammates who had been coming here year after year, so we’ve lost quite a bit of experienced workers and we’ve been having a hard time finding people to come in and fill the spots,” said Stephanie Early, Timberline’s chief strategic officer.
“We’re finding this is an industry-wide issue and not just an issue here.”
Amber Blasingame, an immigration attorney for the Colorado Springs law firm Hanes & Bartels LLC, often represents businesses seeking H-2B visa workers. She said the companies that seek them typically do so as a last resort, as the program stipulates companies must exhaust their efforts to hire American citizens before applying.
“In most of the cases where I’m talking to an employer who’s even considering an H-2B, they’ve already tried to hire for the position and most of them are coming to me because they can’t find anybody who is available,” Blasingame said.
“So for people who come out and say, ‘Oh, they’re hiring all these foreign workers and they’re taking our jobs.’ No they are not. They are fulfilling jobs that U.S. workers don’t want in many cases.”
As time goes by, Blasingame said, many companies come to rely on H-2B workers for their labor base.
Despite offering wages well above the state minimum, as well as competitive benefits and advancement opportunities, Early said the physical nature of the job often dissuades Americans from applying. Those that do apply and accept a position often don’t stay long.
“It’s hard work and it’s hot outside in the summertime,” Early said. “There’s a lot of people that will come out, work a couple of weeks and then look for other opportunities. So the appeal of working outdoors is what gets people to stick around a lot of times, but it’s also what makes some of them realize it’s not for them.”
Hiring an H-2B visa worker comes at a cost for the hiring company, which pays for their travel to, but not from, the United States. But Early said the benefit of continuity offsets what Timberline pays.
“It ends up being pretty equal in the end,” Early said. “The cost of the H-2B program is not overly expensive when it comes to processing the visas and getting everyone here. The benefit of it is they come here with the intent of working for you at your company for the extent of their visa — versus local labor, where we’re seeing a lot more turnover with our employees. So the cost of recruiting, processing and onboarding these new employees is what starts to even things out when you look at the difference between H-2B versus local labor.”
H-2B visas are capped at 66,000 each fiscal year, split evenly between two seasons. But demand has been so high in recent years the Department of Homeland Security has approved thousands of supplemental visas, and a lottery system has been implemented to determine which companies receive workers.
Because of the uncertainties of the program, Early said much of the landscaping industry was already seeking independence from H-2B workers prior to Trump’s order.
“We’ve determined as a company that this is not a risk we can continue to take,” Early said. “It’s something we’ve talked about for several years, even before the program was canceled this year. When they went to the lottery system … it was based purely on luck of the draw as to whether you get your visas or not. And that was way more risk than we were willing to take.
“So for us, if the program is available next year … we’re going to apply for it but for fewer numbers than we have in the past. We’re working on really addressing this shortage within our industry and looking at: How do we attract people? How do we show them there’s a quality career pathway here? How do we show them this is a great industry to work within and work through some of these issues better?”
Early said in an effort to attract and retain more American workers, Timberline is coordinating internships with local schools — they currently have a partnership with District 49 — and launched a gap-year program in 2019 that seeks to attract people from outside the state to come and work in Colorado.
But changing perceptions about careers in landscaping, Early said, will take time. The industries that rely on H-2B workers will likely do so for the foreseeable future.