WASHINGTON - Sen. Jeff Merkley urged the Department of Labor and the White House Thursday to toughen regulations and oversight of a visa program that allowed foreign nationals to be hired for forest jobs in Oregon intended for unemployed Oregonians.
"The unequivocal intent of Congress was to use funds in the Recovery Act to put Americans immediately to work while reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire and improving forest health," Merkley wrote, describing a collection of forest programs for Oregon underwritten with more than $7 million in stimulus funding.
"Thus, it is extremely disconcerting that ... millions of dollars in Recovery Act funding were used to pay contractors who employed hundreds of foreign nationals through the H-2B program," the two-page letter says.
"It simply is not believable that there were not Oregonians ready and willing to do these jobs." - Merkley
The H-2B program allows foreign workers to be hired if there are no local workers to do the work and if wages aren't diluted. But the Oregon case exposed gaping - but legal - loopholes that contractors exploited.
The Department of Labor has proposed reforms that department officials say will strengthen the program and minimize abuses. They include a better system for advertising jobs so local workers learn of openings and shortening the time between the time a job opens and work actually begins.
The H-2B program allows the entry of foreign workers into the United States on a temporary basis when qualified U.S. workers are not available and when the employment of those foreign workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers. The H-2B program is limited by law to a program cap of 66,000 visas per year.
The problems with the visa program in Oregon came to light after Rep. Peter DeFazio asked the Labor Department's Inspector General to investigate. The investigation looked at 14 contracts to clear federal forests in central Oregon. The contracts were controlled by four Oregon companies: Medford Cutting Edge Forestry, Summitt Forests, Ponderosa Reforestations, and G.E. Forestry. All hired foreign workers, according to the report, though they didn't all handle hiring in the same way.
The report confirmed that 254 foreign workers were hired. But it also found that no laws or standards were violated.
One of the loopholes exploited by contractors was a requirement for limited notice of job openings. The Oregon jobs, for example, were advertised in tiny newspapers in California and Washington state for several days.
"Employers were not required to recruit U.S. workers in Oregon, and we were provided no evidence that they did," federal investigators said. "Workers in Oregon were likely unaware that these job opportunities were available."
In fact, although 146 U.S. workers were contacted for possible employment, investigators found that none was hired.
Contractors used another regulation to dampen response from Oregon residents, the report said. The visa regulations allowed the contractors to do all their hiring four months before work started. That made unemployed workers who needed jobs immediately reluctant to commit to temporary jobs four months later.
Despite the barriers, 29 U.S. workers learned of the jobs and asked about employment. The report did not say if they were from Oregon.
In addition to the changes Labor proposes, Merkley says state labor officials should certify that no local workers are available to fill the jobs before foreign nationals can be hired.
"As you know, SWA (state workforce agencies) have extensive knowledge of local labor markets and regional industries, and requiring SWA's to directly manage and approve H-2B applications would help restore confidence in the H-2B program and reassure American workers that the federal law is being followed," Merkley wrote.
Merkley's letter follows one written in October by DeFazio that also demanded tougher upgrades. Among other suggestions, DeFazio said contractors should be required to advertise openings closer to areas where the work would actually take place.