U.S. changes rules to force resorts to try harder to hire locals first, not foreign workers
By John Lantigua
The U.S. Department of Labor has issued new rules requiring importers of foreign guestworkers nationwide to make a greater effort to recruit local workers, a change that will have a significant impact on Palm Beach County.
In a series of articles published in 2011, The Palm Beach Post revealed that 2,000 foreign workers were being imported yearly for jobs of seven months and more in local country clubs and resorts, despite an unemployment rate in the county of over 10 percent, and approximately twice that high among minority workers.
County Commissioner Burt Aaronson, representatives of country clubs and hotels, state employment officials and local educators have since formed a task force to address the issue. They have set a goal of filling all those hospitality industry jobs with local workers within four years.
The new federal rules make that increased local recruiting effort mandatory.
H-2B guestworker visas are issued by the Labor Department to employers seeking non-skilled seasonal employees, when those employers cannot find local workers. But critics say some employers have made little or no effort to find locals and have used the program as a way to keep wages low and avoid paying benefits.
“The rule announced today will ensure that the program is used as intended by making these jobs more accessible to U.S. workers and providing stronger protections for every worker,” Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said Friday.
The new rules are to be published in the Federal Register Feb.21 and should take effect 60 days later, April 23, although employer organizations could sue to block or delay the rules.
Currently, employers are required to advertise the jobs in question for only 10 days, as much as four months before the jobs are to begin. In other words, a country club job starting Oct. 1 can be advertised locally in early June and then the chance of any local applying for the job can end.
Under the new rules, employers must recruit local workers until 21 days before the job is to begin and the local office of Workforce Alliance, the non-profit job creation agency for Florida, will have a larger role in overseeing and documenting those recruitment efforts. Employers will also be required to make the jobs available to locals previously employed in those jobs before seeking foreign workers.
In an earlier draft of the rules, employers were obligated to leave the local hiring process open until three days before the job was to begin. But employers across the nation complained that such a small window was impractical. The Labor Department agreed.
Aaronson applauded the compromise Friday.
“I think it’s reasonable,” he said, “and I think the clubs should be happy. It’s a step in the right direction. I feel very confident we will be hiring many more local workers for these clubs.”
Also, under the current rules, an employer simply has to attest that the foreign workers are needed and can hire them without prior government oversight. Under the new rules, employers will have to prove they have genuine need for the foreign workers before they will be allowed to apply for them.
The new regulations also provide protections for foreign workers. Legal aid lawyers have charged that although employers are obligated to pay all travel and paperwork costs for those imported workers, they sometimes don’t and some workers have been subjected to substandard work and housing conditions.
Breaking the new rules could cost employers as much as $10,000 in fines.
Palm Beach County’s Workforce Alliance applauded the new regulations.
“The Department of Labor’s new H-2B rules strengthen the efforts of Workforce Alliance to reduce the number of H-2B visa workers by increasing the number of local residents hired into jobs,” said spokesman Tom Veenstra.
David Semadeni, secretary of the Palm Beach County Hotel and Lodging Association, said he saw no immediate problem with the new rules.
“I see no massive red flags,” he said. “Obviously giving the employers 21 days instead of three days (for overseas contracting) is far better from the employer’s point of view.”
Some of the county’s landmark hospitality venues and private clubs are among those importing workers: The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club & Spa in Jupiter; The Breakers, Mar-a-Lago, the Everglades Club, the Four Seasons and the Palm Beach Country Club, all in Palm Beach; BallenIsles in Palm Beach Gardens; and Boca Grove Plantation, Boca Rio and the Polo Club, all in Boca Raton.
The new rules address only H-2B workers brought in under visas approved by the Labor Department. Some Palm Beach County hospitality employers have also used State Department J-1 visas to import hundreds of workers. Those visas are not covered by the new rules.