BY MAUREEN N. MARATITA
Guam will continue to need significant numbers of H-2B workers, for the foreseeable future — that much is certain.
So is the fact that Requests for Proposals and awards continue to roll out for the military alignment in Guam — and the Northern Mariana Islands.
But whether those projects will falter against Department of Defense funding and repeatedly delayed military construction schedules is the ‘elephant in the room.’
David Dell’Isola, director of the Guam Department of Labor said expectations are high that H2-B workers will be needed “for the military [work] there is — and it’s going to be growing and growing — at least until this .. alignment continues on.”
Indeed, expert estimates place military work sufficient to keep the island’s contractors happy for a decade, without even considering civil projects.
But COVID-19 only adds to the general uncertainty.
Gregory Massey, administrator of GDOL’s Alien Labor Processing and Certification Division, said, “The pandemic plays a role in how fast those [H2-B] numbers ramp up or down. If they start awarding more projects those numbers could definitely change.”
DOL continues to estimate the number of workers — which also impacts its ability to deliver H-2B services with the staff it has.
Massey told the Journal, “At this point we feel the numbers are not too far off (See Chart).”
That number is based on a variety of factors, he said.
“We base that off of applications that are pending right now, what work is in place, and existing workers and what contractors are telling us that they’re seeing in the next couple of months that are coming up.”
Estimates have also come to DOL from the Department of Defense, he said. “If you look at military estimates that they’ve given a year ago … they’re saying that we should be in the 5,000 to 6,000 worker range — at least right now; 3,000 high end is pretty conservative.”
Dell’Isola said DOL communicates closely with both the contracting community and military representatives on island to monitor expectations. “We’re very ‘intimate.’ That’s just the way we operate, anyway.”
Massey said when H-2s come to Guam that allows projects to go forward. “We have five hard to fill [skills] that we bring in H-2s for. It’s carpenters, masons, ironworkers, heavy equipment operators and electricians. Those are the top five.” Aside from that companies are hiring U.S. workers for all other positions for a contract. “H-2s support U.S. jobs,” he said and also create training programs. “When H-2s were getting denied in 2016, U.S. workers were getting laid off also.” Employers were unwilling to take apprentices because of lack of work, he said. “Now that the jobs are coming back up, these are fertile training grounds for us to start placing apprentices and pre-apprentices … .” Projects create maintenance jobs, Massey said.
“Those are the jobs locals want,” he said.
DOL’s workload increases as H2 numbers increase. That’s something DOL has stressed, but Dell’Isola said, “We also get 30% of the [Manpower Development Fund.] As the H-2’s population goes up, so does our 30%.; 70% goes to [Guam Community College]. Massey said, “We’re relying on the general fund a little bit, but for the most part this activity runs itself funding wise.”
There are five staff in the Alien Labor Processing and Certification Division, though Massey said at one time he had 15 employees. “We’ve got some temporary staff that we’re training up, and we’re building capacity.”
Most H-2B workers — apart from a small number from Mexico, continue to come from the Philippines.
Since post World War II days when workers came to Guam from the country and settled in Guam a labor stream between Guam and the Philippines has always existed — and for good reason, according to DOL.
Dell’Isola said, “We have history.” Workers from the Philippines, he said offer advantages to employers, “They’re the closest; they work well; they assimilate very well into the workplace — the environment — the heat.” The Philippines is a proven source, Dell’Isola said.
In January 2019, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security removed Filipinos’ eligibility to obtain certain H-2A and H-2B work visas, due to concerns that included overstaying. As an island, Guam has not had a major issue, Massey said. “We really are low risk. … We can’t speak for other immigration programs … we only have control over the H-2s.”
In addition, he said, workers from the Philippines are less likely to suffer abuse. “They all speak English; they know exactly where to go to complain.” DOL works closely with federal partners on any abuse, he said. Human trafficking and wage and hour cases are rare, he said.
While many workers from the Philippines are not aware of the military realignment and how opportunities could affect potential jobs, they do know that Guam is a reputable and well-paying destination.
Dell’Isolla said the situation became more difficult, but workers from the Philippines were still able to come. Diversification has always been DOL’s position, he said.
“We were always touting that — let’s not rely on one source only, because of the volatile situation that always seems to be occurring … between governments,” he said.
The People’s Republic of China has dropped off the map as a source of potential H-2 labor for Guam — further narrowing the worker field — due to the increased sensitivity of having Chinese workers on any work on a U.S, military installation, or that meet the NDAA definition.
“Some Chinese employers tried to bring in workers; they were never successful,” Massey said.
“That pretty much eliminates our other source that used to come here,” Dell’Isola said.
Dell’Isola said neither he nor any of his predecessors have ever recommended any country as a labor source, to include the Philippines. “What the contractors have to do — that’s their perspective,” Dell’Isola said.
Currently, 10 H-2s are on island from Mexico.
“And we have a couple from Australia and New Zealand under consideration,” Dell’Isola said.
However, he said, “Let’s face it; 99% are coming from the PI. … I don’t see that changing unless forced. That’s the reality of it.”
Non construction H-2s are the victim of the H-2 denial situation, Massey said, which affects tourism and hospitality. “It has a chilling effect. That’s why the [Guam] Contractors Association’s lawsuit [against federal action limiting numbers] is ongoing. Although they’re fighting for construction, they’re also fighting the fight for bakers, goldsmiths, landscaping.”
There is a process for companies that want to bring in H-2B workers – whether for construction or allied health — also permitted. Massey said, “They have to apply for what’s called a Temporary Labor Certification. They apply through us.” The employer is then required to do a Labor Market Test and in a 30-day recruitment period, offer jobs to U.S. workers first in Guam, the U.S. mainland and through Hire Guam system, which acts as a job bank for Guam through the American Job Center system.
In addition, Massey said, “The process is not only recruitment, but making sure the employer offers the prevailing wage rate, that they offer all of the same benefits that they would offer to U.S. workers to H-2s and that they meet all the other program requirements.”
Massey said employers are well vetted. After labor market testing, he said, “We would send that up to the governor.” If there is approval, he said, “Once the employer gets the labor certification signed by the governor, we recommend approval or denial.” The labor certification then goes to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Currently, Massey said, “These days they are also filing using the National Defense Act authorization exemption. In order to avail themselves of that they would have to get a letter from Joint Region Marianas that says that their projects are either directly connected or associated with the military realignment.” GDOL is also the conduit for that part of the process, Massey said. USCIS has the final word on usage of H-2s, he said. That approval is sent to the U.S. Embassy of the country of origin of the workers, which issues the visas. On arrival in Guam, a worker then receives an ID card from GDOL. “There’s basically a four-tier system. It’s a more stringent vetting than most other visa programs,” Massey said.
The process is the same it has been for decades, Dell’Isola said, apart from the addition of JRM approval.
COVID-related issues in barracks is a duty of the Guam Department of Public Health and Social Services, which regulates worker housing. Dell’Isola said because of networking DOL hears of best practices to curtail the spread., “We disseminate it out to the other contractors … it’s in their vested interest.”
Despite challenges, Dell’Isola said DOL’s processes and its program are the strongest in the nation. “Some of it is not only the work. Because we’re small, we’re able to go to every job site and inspect — make sure the workers are being treated properly. We do a very good job in enforcement — not only to protect the island, but also to protect the workers. That ensures we have no problems down the road as far as from the Philippines or from the U.S. government whenever they want to listen to what we have to say.” mbj