Merkley Introduces Amendment to Immigration Bill to Protect Forest Jobs

Washington – Today, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley introduced an amendment to the comprehensive immigration reform bill that would tighten restrictions on a visa program that was used to hire foreign workers at the expense of Oregon forest workers. The amendment is similar to a bill he offered earlier this year called “The American Jobs in American Forests Act.”

In 2011, the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Labor released an audit documenting how millions of dollars in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding were used to employ foreign workers on forest thinning projects that had been intended for unemployed Oregon timber workers. This was made possible by abuse of the H-2B visa program, which was created to bring in temporary foreign workers in cases when employers are unable to find American workers willing and able to do the work.

“I am pleased that the Senate is moving forward to fix our broken immigration system,” said Merkley. “But we need to ensure that in fields like forestry where there are thousands of Oregonians looking for work, companies are not allowed to abuse the H-2B visa program and just blindly assert that there are no Oregonians willing and able to work in our forests.”

The H-2B visa program allows employers to temporarily hire foreign workers if they can establish that no Americans are qualified or available for the work. In the case of the contractors involved with the 2009 stimulus funding, no meaningful effort was made to hire Oregonians.  

Merkley previously called on the Department of Labor, the Office of Management and Budget, and the U.S. Forest Service to make changes to how the program is administered and how the Forest Service conducts oversight of contractors performing work in federal forests.  

The amendment would make three key changes to the DOL’s H-2B visa program for forest workers:

1)      Enhanced recruitment: Employers, before submitting a petition to hire H-2B workers, would have to conduct robust recruitment of U.S. workers including advertising at job fairs, with local and state workforce agencies and nonprofits (and other appropriate entities), advertising on local radio and reputable Internet job-search sites, and other recruitment strategies that the state workforce agency considers appropriate. 

2)      State Workforce Agencies: Before the Secretary of Labor could grant a temporary labor certification to an employer to hire H-2B workers, the Director of the state workforce agency must certify that the employer has complied with all recruitment requirements and must make a formal determination that nationals of the United States are not qualified or available to fill the employment opportunities offered by the prospective H-2B employer.  

3)      Itineraries covering multiple states: If an employer seeks to be certified for a work itinerary that covers multiple states and if the work outside the primary state lasts for 7 days or longer, the employer will have to submit a separate application for the work planned in the other state or states.

According to the Oregon Employment Department, Oregon’s job seeker database includes 3,492 Forest and Conservation Workers and 1,489 Forest and Conservation Technicians actively seeking work.

The Senate began debate on a comprehensive immigration reform bill yesterday.