VAIL -- For nearly 20 years, Glen Ellison, a landscape contractor in Eagle, sponsored a core group of 35 workers, many of them from one city in Mexico, to create some of the most spectacular lawns surrounding the high-end homes of the Vail Valley.
Ellison started out in 1981 with a wheelbarrow, pick, rake, shovel and a Toyota pickup truck. Over the years he visited many of his workers in their homes in Aguascalientes, a city in central Mexico, meeting children, spouses and parents.
He relied on the federal H-2B visa program for temporary, non-agricultural labor to bring many of his landscapers from Mexico to the United States. About 70% of H-2B workers are from Mexico.
Ellison said he had come to see his hardworking men more as family than employees. And he called them vital contributors to the local economy.
His businesses -- Ceres Landcare and Ceres+ Landscape Architecture -- survived the worst of the Great Recession, ready to ride the economic recovery wave.
Then, in spring 2018, as the snow was melting and trophy-home owners from Beaver Creek to Cordillera were calling for elaborate gardens, terraced patios and intricate water features, Ellison found out that none of his H-2B visa workers would be allowed to return. He had not demonstrated a great enough need.
And this year, a new lottery system again torpedoed his longstanding H-2B workforce.
Employers like Ellison are caught in the squeeze between a growing shortage of seasonal labor and the incendiary national debate over immigration.
In years past, many workers who had previously been admitted to the U.S. under the H-2B program were excluded from the annual quota of 66,000 visas. But Congress ended that policy in 2017 amid a debate over whether immigrant labor was undermining American workers.
And faced with rising demand for the temporary visas, a lottery system for H-2B documents was imposed, upending a system that many businesses relied on to fill jobs at restaurants, hotels and landscaping companies.
A resilient businessman, Ellison didn’t despair. He told his workers that he would do everything he could to restore their H-2B work visas so they could come back to Colorado.
But after visiting Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Colorado's congressional delegation and other seasonal employment advocacy organizations earlier this year, Ellison thinks he may never see some of his workers again in the Vail Valley.
Now, Ellison is in desperation mode, trying recruiting tactics like setting up a table with brochures and a banner in the Tucson suburb of Vail, Arizona, looking for green card holders who may be looking to switch jobs.
He met with little success. Workers are scarce there, too.
And forget about finding naturalized American citizens to do the backbreaking outdoor work required in landscaping, Ellison said. Maybe that was true in the 1980s, when he first moved to the Vail Valley, but now there are few ski bums and college-aged young people willing to toil in all conditions under the Colorado sun.
“For the most part, we, as Americans, have grown soft. We don't like to go out there and work like that,” Ellison said. “The idea behind work today is using enhancers and get to the fitness center. But the idea of putting callouses on your fingers and doing a hard day's worth of work, not just today but tomorrow and next week and next month, man, that's something from the past.
“But the people down in Mexico, they'd love it and it works for them.”
'Please help me'
Ellison's labor crisis is echoed up and down this mountain valley, where booming demand for workers meets a severe shortage of supply.
In Eagle County, unemployment levels are considerably lower than the national average of around 4%, which is considered full employment. The county that surrounds Vail and Beaver Creek has an unemployment rate lower than 2%, and as of April there were 1,600 open jobs.
A key question, said Chris Romer, president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership, is: “What impact does that low unemployment level and the inability to bring employees into businesses have on our business growth and on our economic development as a community?”
He said a recent workforce study by the chamber found that 75% of local businesses want to grow but are having a hard time doing so and over 60% of businesses have open positions but can’t fill the jobs.
Ellison declined to divulge exact numbers, but he did say that his company could have grown sales substantially over the last couple of landscaping seasons if enough workers had been available – growth that he argues would have benefited the entire community.
“If we would've been able to find employees to go out there to work, it would have had a trickle effect; we would have been able to buy more from our suppliers, buy more vehicles,” Ellison said. “We [could be] stimulating the economy, but we can't. So what we have is a wonderful management core and a wonderful reputation but we don't have people to get the work done.”
At first, Ellison would never admit to that. After all, there was a year during the Obama administration as the economy was still shakily emerging from the recession, when the once-reliable H-2B system failed to produce. But then it was put back on track until the last couple of years of the Trump administration.
Admitting you can’t get the job done because there’s a workforce shortage used to be a sure way to send customers straight to the competition. But these days, Ellison said, most of those companies are dealing with the same critical seasonal labor shortages.
“We're still employing the [administrative] core, who's willing to go behind the computer and manage. We've got plenty of that -- brilliant people. But to find laborers …” Ellison said.
“I had a client up in Beaver Creek once who said, ‘Why would I not want to get the very best services I can get because I have an investment in this asset up here and I want to maintain it?' Well, I've started to open up and say, ‘You know, Mr. and Mrs. Client, if we can't perform the service up to the par that you've experienced from us in the past or if we can't get there today, it's out of my control. If you need to go and find somebody else to do it, good luck, because they're in the same boat that I am.'”
Ellison has met with Democrats and Republicans alike in Washington, and they all generally express sympathy for his plight, recognizing that he’s pumped significant resources, time and legal fees into the H-2B system only to have the rug pulled out from under him the last two years.
Ellison says legal work visas, including temporary ones, have been lumped in with the dirty word of immigration in D.C. – even though by law his workers return home each season.
Ellison said he tells his disappointed customer that they are "supporting some of these people that are in office” who are restricting the availability of immigrant labor.
And he said he asks them to "'Please help me, and please understand what you are doing to yourself.' You know, we need to get these people to understand who’s making some of these rules in our Congress and to say this is real problem and we better fix it.”
'Hire American first'
Colorado was a top-three state for H-2B visa workers in 2017, with 5,548, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which administers the program. Right behind Colorado in fourth that year was Florida, where President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago golf resort uses H-2B visa workers.
The temporary nature of the visas (up to 10 months) is a nod to the seasonality of the work, and they are typically used in the landscaping, construction and resort hospitality industries.
Since the Great Recession, demand for the annual H-2B quota of 66,000 (33,000 each for winter and summer) has far outstripped availability, with nearly twice as many applications as actual visas each year.
The U.S. Labor Department is working to increase the number of H-2B visas by 30,000 this year.
But critics of the system say it’s become unfair, arbitrary and unreliable year to year, creating uncertainty for companies like Ellison’s that used it effectively for decades.
“The advent of President Trump into office has changed the situation slightly in terms of employment-based visas, specifically with his Buy American and Hire American memo in 2017,” immigration attorney Amy Novak said at a conference in April on immigration and work visas in Edwards. “So his perspective is that there are American workers who do not have enough work, and the onus is then on the employer to hire American first.”
As a result, Novak says, even though unemployment rates are at historical lows, approval rates for employment-based requests for foreign workers submitted to the Department of Homeland Security have declined from 22.6% in fiscal year 2016 to 16.8% in fiscal year 2018.
“We all know from living here that it's not possible to find American workers to do the jobs that you need to do,” Novak said. “And that doesn't even take into consideration the fact that we operate in a seasonal economy, which makes hiring more difficult, and the fact that we're talking sometimes about lower-wage jobs, which sometimes people find too demanding.”
Playing the devil’s advocate, the Vail Valley Partnership’s Romer asked the question and expressed the criticism he hears most frequently about American companies hiring foreign guest workers: “Isn't this just a way to get low-cost employees? Why not hire American first? Isn’t it just a way to hire at a lower cost and have a lower expense line item for your business?”
“So that is a myth,” said Jennifer Law, a human resources director for Vail Resorts, in response to Romer's rhetorical question. “We spend a lot of time and money with attorneys to make sure that we dot our I's and cross our T's … because it's an arduous process. Also, the Department of Labor actually sets the rates which we have to pay the workers, so we know what the cost is going into it, and that doesn't necessarily save us any money either.”
Gary Woodworth, president and CEO of the Gallegos Corp. masonry and construction company in Wolcott, has been using H-2B visas for two decades -- depending on temporary workers during the short building season in the mountains of Colorado.
He serves on the government affairs committee of the Seasonal Employers Alliance, which advocates for its members on workforce issues, and was on that lobbying trip with Ellison earlier this year and on other trips recently – even meeting with Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta at one point.
Woodworth agrees with Law that the idea of using H-2B visas to pay lower wages and improve the bottom line at the expense of U.S. workers is a myth. He said the minimum he’s allowed to pay, per Labor Department regulations, is nearly $18 an hour. Plus, he says there’s about another $2.50 an hour per worker in administrative costs associated with the visas.
“And that does not include the benefits package that we offer to them as well,” Woodworth said. “We give them full health insurance options, just like any other employee, paid time off -- really go out of our way to treat them just like any other worker that would be coming in. So, is it a cheap end-around to hiring local?”
In fact, he said, using the visa program is more of a necessity born of the brutal labor market, where there are fewer and fewer young Americans entering into the skilled-trades market. He said his company has tried virtually every conceivable method of hiring American first. As older workers retire, Woodworth says it’s impacting the building industry around the state.
“For construction, it truly will be and is a limiting factor in any sort of growth and/or achieving schedules within construction, which are driving delays that are causing problems with many projects of size [up to] $6 million in completion costs by the time these projects are complete,” Woodworth said.
Hope fades for reform
Any hope that Trump, as a resort hotel and golf course developer, would help alleviate hurdles to hiring temporary foreign workers seem to be rapidly fading, local employers say.
The administration’s recent announcement of a plan devised by Trump’s top advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner to prioritize high-skilled immigrant workers based on merit would not seem to bode well for the temporary, lower-skilled workers so in demand in Colorado’s seasonal, tourism-based economy.
“Well, obviously the short answer is who knows, because there are no details,” Rutgers economics professor Jennifer Hunt said of the new Kushner plan. “The general thrust obviously of the administration though clearly is to reduce all types of unskilled [workers]. They're already trying to put pressure on actually all of the temporary visas, skilled and unskilled.”
A former economic advisor to the Obama administration Labor Department, Hunt says she was on a panel for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in 2017 that produced a report called "The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration." The report concluded immigration generally benefits the economy of the destination country.
“We did have consensus, or at least somewhat, that there's no effect on average wages; it's good for the size of the economy; the GDP [gross domestic product], GDP per capita, GDP per native, all of that; and we also agreed that there is no effect on the employment rates of natives,” Hunt said. “Natives may end up changing jobs, but for the U.S., actually everyone also agrees there’s no negative impact on the share of natives who are employed.”
The issue of work visas -- whether they’re longer-term, temporary, low-skilled or high-skilled -- should be a matter of need based on demand from particular industrial sectors, rather than politicized formulas, said Jonathan Grode, a Philadelphia-based immigration attorney for the law firm Green and Spiegel, which employs Novak as its Colorado representative.
The issues of overall immigration and asylum seekers have become intertwined with work visas and other forms of legal immigration, he adds, and comprehensive immigration reform doesn’t necessarily work.
“They do enforcement, they deal with the people about status, they deal with H-2B visas and all this stuff, and they try to wrap it all up into one omnibus [immigration reform] bill and they think that that's going to get enough people vested and interested in it that it will get pushed through,” Grode said.
“Because it's failed twice [in 2006 and 2013], and I don't think it works. We really need to kind of take a step back and do disparate legislation for specific issues.”
Grode points out that the last meaningful immigration reform passed by Congress was in 1986 during the Reagan administration, when there was an attempt at creating a year-round, low-skilled, non-immigrant work visa. That failed, but rigorous obligations for employers to verify immigrant workers' eligibility were added.
Comprehensive reform attempts such as the Gang of Eight immigration bill backed by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet that passed the Senate in 2013 won’t go anywhere in the current climate, he said.
“That's part of the issue. ... The last few attempts have been trying to get so all-encompassing that it hasn't allowed us to move the needle at all,” Grode said. “That what's really plaguing immigration.
Anytime something is proposed by a gang of however many senators, it’s not going to work -- a gang of eight or 12 or 15 whatever.”