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Jobs and fairness: 'prevailing wage' rule good for Marylanders

The Obama Labor Department has established a fair and simple requirement for issuing H-2B visas: Employers must first offer jobs to U.S. workers, at the prevailing wage in their community, before they can get permission to import foreign workers. This is good news for U.S. workers, since the H-2B visa allows about 66,000 foreign workers a year to take jobs unemployed Americans could do. It's a major improvement over the Bush-era regulation under which employers could offer substantially lower wages to U.S. workers and then recruit for guest workers outside the country.

The repealed Bush rule allowed Maryland landscaping companies, for example, to make a token "offer" of jobs to U.S. workers at about $3 an hour less than the locally prevailing wage — that is, at $3 an hour less than the average wage paid by their competitors. Since most workers in Baltimore who were used to being paid $12.80 an hour wouldn't apply for the same job paying $9.12 an hour, the companies were then free to import lower-paid foreign guest workers. Similar wage-cutting and substitution occurred for carpenters and plasterers, hotel housekeepers, short-order cooks and a dozen other occupations. Altogether, almost 5,000 H-2B guest workers were certified for jobs in Maryland last year — jobs that ought to go to Maryland workers at prevailing community wage standards.

This was a bad policy at several levels. With Baltimore's unemployment hovering around 8 percent, it makes no sense to import foreign workers for these jobs. It makes no sense to undercut employers who are paying decent wages by allowing competitors to import cheaper guest workers. And in a nation where wages have stagnated and middle class families are struggling, it's crazy to undermine the wages of landscaping, hotel and construction employees.

Nationwide, 1.2 million Americans work as landscape and groundskeeping laborers, at an average wage of more than $12 an hour. These are jobs Americans clearly want, that they can do, and that won't be shipped overseas. The only danger is that U.S. workers will be replaced right here in the U.S. by cheaper foreign workers, and the Bush rule made that easier.

So why is Sen. Barbara Mikulski fighting with the Labor Department, blocking the new wage rule and trying to restore the Bush rule that lowers wages? In the Baltimore-Towson metro area alone, 110,000 of the senator's constituents are unemployed. Another 110,000 across the rest of the state are also looking for work. Tens of thousands of them have been unemployed for a year or more and would love to have these jobs. Why does the desire of a handful of companies to pay poverty wages outweigh the need of Senator Mikulski's constituents for jobs that pay a living wage?

One Maryland industry argues that it can't find U.S. workers even at the new rule's higher wages. The crab meat industry, including familiar names like Phillips Seafood, is under pressure from foreign competitors and asserts that paying more than the minimum wage will cost thousands of jobs. In fact, they haven't shown that any real harm would result from increasing wages for a few hundred crab pickers whose compensation is a small part of total costs. But the industry has scared Maryland politicians for years. They assume that no U.S. crab pickers can be found, even at a living wage, and then conclude that with no pickers, the whole industry will shut down, costing thousands of jobs for boat crews, truckers, marketers, and executives. But this is a false premise and a false choice. If the companies raise wages and U.S. workers still don't apply for the jobs, the H-2B workers will still be available.

For landscapers and the other service and construction jobs that do not face any Chinese competition, there is no debating that tens of thousands of Maryland workers are available, that they want and need jobs that pay the prevailing wage, and that Senator Mikulski is hurting their interests by working to restore regulations that cut wages by 25 percent or more and outsource good jobs to foreign workers.

Ross Eisenbrey is vice president of the Economic Policy Institute.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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