Unable to find and retain reliable workers who are citizens of these United States, Gibson "Gibby" Porter did what many employers in the landscaping business did: He imported help from Mexico, and he did it legally, within the limits of a government-controlled program.
For several years, Porter hired as many as 13 Mexican men to work nine-month stretches, paying them between $10 and $17 an hour to build gardens, plant shrubs and trees, cut grass, prune bushes and spread mulch. Many of the same guys came back every year.
But not this year.
The Gibby 13, who were scheduled to arrive in March for another season of work in the Baltimore area, are still waiting in Mexico. They and thousands of other seasonal workers have been delayed by political, legal and bureaucratic wrangling over the U.S. guest worker program.
A federal court case and changes in what's known as the H-2B visa program have cost Porter and other landscapers — as well as employers in the seafood processing and hospitality industries — time and money. The problems have raised doubts about their spring, summer and fall labor pools.
Porter, marking 20 years in business as Gibson Landscapes Inc., has employed 13 Mexicans over the past decade. In fact, they came to make up the majority of his workers for the last three years.
This season, he was planning to have 17 workers, including the Gibby 13 from Mexico.
"But I have only six workers right now," he says. "I usually have six just to cut grass. This year I was planning to have six cut grass and 11 do the landscaping."
The six people currently working for Porter live here all year. Four worked for him already. The other two are recent hires.
"I'm scrambling right now to hire locally," he says, "and that's my goal anyway. But …"
But that's the issue — he's been there/done that, and is not sure it will go any better this time.
Porter says he tries to hire locally every year, and during one two-year period, he managed to put 30 U.S. citizens on his payroll. He only had to fire one. Twenty-eight others fired themselves; they stopped showing up.
"Only one lasted the entire seven months of the season," he says. "I tried to hire and train local people, but there was no retention. And there was a lack of that, you know, energy in the step."
So, as his company started to grow and take on high-end clients, Porter turned to the government's guest worker program for help. "It's really become essential to my business model," he says. "It's supposed to be a supplemental program, but for me it's not a supplement [to local hiring], it's essential."
Essential, yes. But from year to year, as Porter followed federal rules and paid thousands of dollars in fees to get the Mexican workers to Maryland by March, he knew there was a chance it might not happen. The government limits the number of seasonal-worker visas it issues nationally, and this year, Porter says, his 13 workers did not make it under the cap.
Porter believes the congressionally set cap of 66,000 is too low and fails to give preference to returning workers who have a history with companies like his. He says changes in requirements, procedures and deadlines for visa applications this year have cost him nearly four times what he first paid to participate in the H-2B program 10 years ago.
"My guys are in Mexico waiting to see what happens," he says. "A lot of them have jobs there. They work on family farms, in sugar cane. But they were counting on working for me again. I trust my guys from Mexico, and they trust me. I rely on them and they rely on me. There's loyalty. One of them, Enrique, asked me to come to his wedding in Mexico."
Porter says he follows all the rules the government sets for the guest-worker program, including wage requirements. He pays the Mexicans by check, not cash; they all pay taxes and get a W-2 form from Porter's company. Their visas have start and stop dates, allowing them to work here until about a week before Christmas, if they want.
About half of the men of the Gibby 13 are married. "They get apartments in Cockeysville," he says, "and they keep a lease and pay rent all year so they have a place to live while they're here."
But they're not here. They're in Mexico, waiting in line.
"They're not even in line," Porter says. "It's more like a pile."
Meanwhile, the grass is growing again in Maryland. Customers want their mulch. Porter has designed gardens and he needs help building them. He was with his small crew at a home in Catonsville on Friday, planting ornamental cherry trees, forest pansy redbud and "green giant" arborvitae.
He needs more help, so he's looking again for Americans willing to do what only Mexicans seemed willing to do. I wish him good luck with that.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.