Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Clay Pinson was not the sole owner of Massengale Grounds Management, but a former minority equity shareholder.
When Clay Pinson left the Baton Rouge landscaping industry last year, he was more than ready to escape the “bureaucratic nightmare” he knows as the H-2B visa program, through which 40 or 50 of his former summertime laborers were hired.
Landscapers like Pinson, a former minority equity shareholder of Massengale Grounds Management, frequently employ temporary immigrant laborers who arrive in the U.S. under the H-2B visa program for short-term, non-agricultural jobs.
Now, many of these businesses—even those in the Capital Region—are dealing with a shortage of seasonal workers triggered by the Trump administration’s tougher stance on immigration.
The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry confirms it’s heard rumblings from landscapers who are worried about not having enough people to work summer gigs. As does Cari Jane Murray, executive director of the Louisiana Nursery and Landscape Association, who says she’s heard concerns from many of the nearly 250 members of her organization.
“They’re scared for their livelihoods and their businesses,” Murray says, noting there are some 2,000 licensed landscape horticulturists in the state.
“Landscaping and groundskeeping” is the occupation that has employed the most H-2B visa workers in 2018 (53.6%), according to data obtained by Brian Breaux, associate commodity director of the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation. The industry has also employed the most H-2B workers in Louisiana, with 1,416 certified employees, who are paid an average hourly wage of $10.99.
And Baton Rouge is the state’s largest employer of H-2B visa workers in general, with 540 certified positions, who are paid an average hourly wage of $12.14.
In order for a landscaper to employ H-2B visa workers, he or she must prove they first tried hiring American workers. But Pinson says it makes more sense to hire Hispanic workers who are legally living and working in the United States, paying the same taxes as most citizens.
“Most Americans don’t want those jobs,” he says. “We’d run an ad in the paper for a seasonal landscaper, and we’d get one or two people who would show up for an interview and they couldn’t pass a drug test.”
Further complicating matters for landscapers is the visa program’s unpredictability, Pinson says. Last year, the federal government removed the returning worker exemption, which allowed immigrants who had previously worked under the program to be exempted from a 66,000-worker cap per fiscal year. To avoid missing out on hires, Pinson says Massengale and other local employers had to get their applications in “extra early.”
But on May 31, amid labor shortages nationwide, the Departments of Labor and of Homeland Security granted an additional 15,000 H-2B visas through the end of fiscal year 2018.
Though applications are currently processed on a first-come, first-serve basis, Breaux says there’s a push for the government to issue visas through a lottery instead, which, he says, would “create a dilemma for employers.”
“It was a huge relief to get out of the industry because that was something that kept you awake at night,” Pinson says.