For the first time in history Guam’s construction industry may not be able to turn to foreign labor for help.

That’s because the H-2B visa program which allows U.S. construction companies to augment their work forces with foreigners has almost reached its statutory capacity. Melinda C. Swavely an immigration lawyer with Dooley Roberts & Fowler LLP said she expects the program to max out sometime in February. She said she has recommended to clients who require foreign laborers to speed up their applications.

“The program maxxed out in March last year. I think it will happen sooner this year ” Swavely said. “Last year was the first year it ever reached the cap. It’s partially due to the economy heating up in the States. Because some companies in the States were not allowed to bring in the workers they needed they are applying earlier this year.” The visas are issued nationwide on a first-come first-serve basis.

“On Guam H-2s have been a traditional source of supplemental labor for decades. People didn’t anticipate this would happen ” Swavely said.

The visa program’s limitations are worrisome to construction companies on Guam which are salivating over billions of dollars in military construction projects scheduled for the next few years but need more manpower. The Guam Contractors Association said its members expect to participate in $3.2 billion in Air Force and Navy projects over the next five years. While alien workers are forbidden on MilCon jobs contractors have already committed all of their local workers to military jobs and want foreign workers to man their private sector projects. Construction officials also forewarned that special arrangements may need to be made for foreigners to work on Guam’s military bases.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office of the Department of Homeland Security on Dec. 13 issued a public notice that H-2B processing was nearing the statutory cap. “The USCIS announced today it has received H-2B petitions for 61 747 beneficiaries counting against the statutory visa cap for fiscal year 2005 (Oct. 1 2004 through Sept. 30 2005). The fiscal year 2005 statutory visa cap is 66 000.”

Guam hosted thousands of H-2Bs that came and went during its construction booms. In 1991 the peak of the last boom there were 9 760 foreign laborers mainly from the Philippines China and Korea. Nowadays derelict construction camps dot the island. Swavely said Guam’s H-2B population correlates historically to the value of construction permits issued by the Department of Public Works.

Last year USCIS said it stopped accepting H-2B petitions on March 9 2004. “USCIS anticipates imposing a similar cutoff with similar exceptions during fiscal year 2005.” The petition exceptions were for stay extensions and changes in the terms of employment. None were for additional workers.

It mattered little to Guam in 2004 when the H-2B visa program reached capacity because the island’s economy was depressed and construction companies did not require extra labor. The number of H-2Bs on Guam as of October 2004 was 473; however the December and January newspapers are rife with notices of job opportunities in the form of advertisements from the Guam Department of Labor a requirement under the visa program to ensure that the jobs cannot be filled first by U.S. citizens. For instance ads in a Dec. 30 paper offered $11.34 an hour for 10 cement masons $11.70 an hour for 10 carpenters and $10.38 an hour for five rebar workers. Another ad wants 16 pipefitters at $16.80 an hour 69 welders at $15.97 an hour 12 riggers at $14.60 an hour and 31 shipfitters at $14.11 an hour.

The H-2B visa category allows U.S. employers in industries with peak load seasonal or intermittent needs to augment the existing labor force with temporary workers. Typically H-2B workers fill labor needs in occupational areas such as education construction health care landscaping lumber manufacturing food service and hospitality services. On Guam almost all of the H-2B visas have been approved for construction jobs.

There is pressure to increase the number of H-2B visas. Last year a bipartisan group of senators led by Sen. Edward Kennedy sponsored failed legislation called the Save the Summer Act of 2004 which would have increased the H-2B cap by 40 000 visas in order to provide foreign workers to staff jobs to serve summer vacationers. A position paper by the American Immigration Lawyers Association called “H-2B Workers Essential for Our National and Local Economies ” said “This is the first time the government has announced that the cap has been hit and the Department of Homeland Security did not give employers advance warning. Unless Congress takes action immediately many summer employers will be left with no option other than shutting their doors. In turn this lack of access to H-2B workers will economically devastate industries and communities nationwide and disrupt the vacation plans of hard-working American families.”

Foreign workers on Guam (based on H-2B visa)
1989………………………3 485
1990………………………4 842
1991………………………9 760
1999………………………1 261

Guam had little warning that this was coming as well and it could not have worse timing for the construction industry which is hampered by the limited pool of Guamanian construction workers and Navy and Air Force restrictions against employing foreign labor on their bases. The Guam Department of Labor said there are about 5 650 construction workers on Guam today not enough for what’s expected.

Keith L Farrell vice president of the Micronesia division of Dick Pacific Construction said the construction-labor shortage on Guam may need to be addressed by the federal government due to the sizable Department of Defense contracts that are in the pipeline. “This will need to be addressed in terms of an absolute need for Guam to be able to meet the needs of military construction.” Dick Pacific is short of workers and has begun the application process for foreigners to supplement its all-time-low local force of 70 men. Farrell said his company employed more than 300 H-2Bs in the early 1990s but has not required them for the past 10 years.

John Robertson general manager of AmOrient Contracting and chairman of the Government of Labor Affairs Committee of the contractors association said the industry easily will require a buildup to 5 000 H-2Bs over the next five years. Robertson said the answer to providing laborers for Guam’s construction demands lies in training more workers increasing wages for journeymen and employing H-2s. “What we’re looking at doing immediately is working with Guam Community College on Jump Start. We want to take Labor’s 5 000 unemployed who say they want into construction and put them in five-week training programs to give them minimal skills to look for gainful employment.”

H-2B visas are for stays of one year of employment and can be renewed annually for two more years. It takes a minimum of about three months to import foreign workers under this program from the time applications are filed. MBJ