Sen. Merkley: “Why are foreign workers thinning our Oregon forests while Oregon timber workers languish at home, jobless?”
Provided by U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Though Oregon’s timber counties have among the highest unemployment rates in the Northwest, a recent 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. Today, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley sent a letter to Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and 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.
In the letter, Senator Merkley called the use of funds “extremely disconcerting” and added, “The forestry work in question was completed in counties that have some of the highest unemployment rates in the Northwest. These areas include communities with a deep history of work in the timber economy and with a labor force highly qualified for this type of work. During the worst recession in generations, and within areas that have been hit harder by unemployment and underemployment than many other places in the country, it is simply not believable that there were not Oregonians ready and willing to do these jobs.”
The H-2B visa program allows employers to hire foreign workers if they can establish that no Americans are qualified or available for the work. However, the rules do not necessarily require that companies advertise open positions in the states where the work actually occurs. In this case, no Oregonians applied for the jobs because the employers only advertised the positions in California, Washington, and Wyoming.
Merkley’s proposed changes would bring more accountability to the process by requiring that the Director of each State Workforce Agency approve of each H-2B application and attest that the employer has complied with all program rules. Currently, all H-2B applications are certified by the Department of Labor out of its national processing office in Chicago. This structural change would ensure that State Workforce Agencies, who have extensive knowledge of local labor markets and regional industries, have a formal role in approving of all H-2B applications.
In addition, Senator Merkley proposed that the Department of Labor and the Office of Management and Budget reform the H-2B program by enhancing the requirements for domestic recruitment. The changes would expand the recruitment strategies of hiring firms to ensure that job listings were advertised in appropriate local venues, such as job fairs and reputable internet listings and radio stations, and would require the SWA to affirm that the employer had complied with all requirements and that it was reasonable to believe no qualified candidates were available locally.