Merkley: “Unconscionable” if Americans not Hired for Local Forest Jobs

Washington, DC- Today, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley sent a letter to Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, urging him to take steps to ensure Americans will be hired with the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program projects announced on February 2, 2012.  In particular, Merkley urged the Chief not to repeat the debacle in 2009 when unemployed Oregonians were passed over for forest thinning work in favor of foreign workers on H-2B visas.

“It will be an unacceptable outrage if American citizens are not hired under these contracts,” Merkley wrote. “It is your responsibility, in partnership with the Department of Labor, to do everything possible—before contracts are issued—to ensure this outcome.” 

Last year, a report from the Department of Labor’s Inspector General revealed that millions of dollars in stimulus funds were used by contractors employing foreign workers to perform forest thinning work. On December 1, 2011 Merkley sent a letter to Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and then Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew proposing changes to the H-2B foreign worker visa program that would help prevent similar incidents in the future. 

Last Friday, the Department of Labor released a final rule that will make some improvements to how the H-2B program is managed, including changes that should make it easier for U.S. workers to apply for job openings that otherwise would go to foreign workers. However, the changes will not go far enough. Merkley has proposed that the Director of the State workforce agency certifies that every employer seeking to use H-2B foreign labor has complied with all recruitment requirements and that there are no American citizens qualified or available to complete the work.

Today’s letter asks that the USFS take additional steps in its contracting process to ensure that the work funded by the new grants is performed by Americans.   

The text of the letter is below.

February 17, 2012

Mr. Tom Tidwell

Chief, U.S. Forest Service

1400 Independence Ave., SW

Washington, DC 20250-0003

Dear Chief Tidwell:

I write to you regarding the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) February 2, 2012 announcement of funding for the Fiscal Year 2012 Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (the Program) projects. In particular, I want to ensure that local labor is hired to perform the work funded by these grants and we do not have a repeat of the debacle in 2009 when unemployed Oregonians were passed over for forest thinning work in favor of foreign nationals on H-2B visas. 

As you know, I strongly support the Program which funds priority forest restoration initiatives that reduce wildfire costs, improve forest health, and create jobs. These long-term and large-scale investments are critical for the future of our nation’s forests and I am pleased the USFS is moving quickly to fund this year’s initiatives. 

As the USFS has long recognized, improving the health of our national forests is critical to improving the economic health of the surrounding communities. The forestry work funded through the Program will occur in areas that have very high unemployment rates, a deep history of work in the timber economy, and a labor force highly qualified for this type of work. Beyond the broader economic benefits, such as supporting recreational opportunities in the woods and protecting sources of clean drinking water for rural communities, these projects are expected to create or maintain 1,500 jobs. 

When the national unemployment rate is above eight percent, and the unemployment rate in Oregon’s timber counties is much higher, it is simply unconscionable that those jobs in our forests might be outsourced. I continue to be outraged that past forest thinning and wildfire prevention work has been awarded by the USFS to contractors using foreign nationals employed through the H-2B Temporary non-Agricultural Work program. As documented in the Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General report from October 17, 2011 (Number 17-12-001-03-321), millions of dollars in recent Recovery Act funding spent in Oregon was used to pay contractors to complete similar projects who did not hire any American citizens.  

The current requirements designed to ensure American citizens have priority are obviously not working. The Inspector General’s report from October describes some the flaws with the Recovery Act projects:

  1.  The use of illegal job requirements when communicating with U.S. citizens interested in the work.  For example, unemployed Oregonians were asked how old they were and whether they could speak another language;
  2. The posting of job orders by contractors only in the state where the work crews were initially located. Large contractors who had multiple jobs with the USFS and started their crews in Washington or California made no effort to recruit workers in Oregon;
  3. A complete lack of guidance on the part of the Department of Labor to state workforce agencies to ensure that they were communicating job openings to the affected communities;
  4. Little to no validation on the part of the Department of Labor that the information provided by employers seeking to be certified to use H-2B labor was accurate. In fact, the Department of Labor certified two contractors without ever verifying they were real businesses or verifying that the paperwork they were submitting contained all the required information.   

The result of these abuses was that $7,140,782 taxpayer dollars were spent for forestry work in Oregon and not one Oregonian was hired. 

I want to know what changes in the process you are going to take, along with the Department of Labor, to make sure this does not happen again.      

The USFS should carefully consider the hiring practices and community involvement of contractors bidding for these projects so the desired economic impact is fully realized. Moreover, the Program’s projects in Oregon are ideally suited for the awarding of stewardship contracts that provide greater flexibility to the regional USFS offices to use “best value” criteria in choosing businesses to complete this work. The best value criteria can, and should, include preferential treatment for businesses that hire locally and sell the recovered wood into local markets. This approach would align one of the Program’s primary objectives, maximizing the economic impact for affected communities, with the contracting process that is most likely to achieve that goal.

I’d also like to be helpful in ensuring these funds support the local communities. I am including an enclosure to this letter that has contact information for the local WorkSource Oregon offices, and I would encourage your staff from the USFS’s Pacific Northwest Region 6 office to communicate directly with these offices once the funds have been awarded. 

I commend the USFS for its commitment to protecting and restoring our national forests. The Program continues to provide a unique opportunity for states, communities, tribes and other organizations to partner together to improve these treasured resources and our rural communities.  

In closing, let me emphasize that it will be an unacceptable outrage if American citizens are not hired under these contracts. It is your responsibility, in partnership with the Department of Labor, to do everything possible—before contracts are issued—to ensure this outcome. 

I and my team are available at any time to meet and discuss this very important issue. I look forward to your prompt response.