Cap Hit

by Nathan Stubbs

Local businesses are reeling from U.S. restrictions on immigrant workers.

There's no sign on the Royal Fiberglass Pools manufacturing plant located right off I-10 just past the Breaux Bridge exit. For the past 23 years, its stacks of upside down pool molds have resembled mounds of dirt off the side of the highway, just part of the everyday scenery for commuters.

Few realize that the family-owned and operated pool manufacturer is now one of the largest wholesale fiberglass pool distributor in America, shipping out some 500 pools at more than $4 million a year. Tony Hebert, who took over the business for his father in 1986, even took the company's name out of the phone book 16 years ago because he didn't need more customers. "Most people don't believe how productive we are," Hebert says in his thick Cajun accent. "We ship pools from the Great Lakes to the Grand Cayman Islands. We don't have a salesman. We don't look for any new work. But we bring a lot of money into the state of Louisiana."

But Hebert says if Congress doesn't quickly change the laws for importing seasonal, unskilled immigrant workers, he's uprooting the family business to Mexico. His father has tried to convince him for the past few years to export the company because of labor shortage issues. This year, it's become a crisis.

"I don't know any manufacturer that's in business that doesn't say that labor is their biggest headache," he says. "If we don't get any relief, we're not going to fight this labor issue. There are people over there begging for work."

Since the early 1990s, thousands of Latin American immigrants have legally made their way into Louisiana to help more than 100 different employers in the state cover their seasonal labor shortages for manufacturing and agricultural and seafood processing. Employers who bring in this temporary help must prove that they have advertised for local workers to no avail.

"Who wants to work four months out of the year?" asks Kelly Couch, a New Roads-based consultant who helps businesses bring in immigrant labor. "[Employers] are dependent upon these workers," she says. Couch became accustomed to the rigorous application process for immigrant labor over the past decade while she and her husband imported workers for their sod farm.

"[Businesses] have no choice, and I think we've come to the point that it's really a win-win situation when these guys come in," she says. "It affords the local laborers more of an opportunity for advancement."

According to the state Department of Labor, Louisiana had 9,980 temporary immigrant workers ' named H2B immigrants after the visas they apply for ' in the state from October '03 to September '04. The demand for H2B workers in Louisiana has grown, but the state is getting less than half of that number this year. From the start of the federal fiscal year last October, the Department of Homeland Security licensed 4,459 immigrant workers for Louisiana, denying all others. This is because of a congressionally mandated cap instituted in 1991 that only allows a total of 66,000 H2B workers into the country each year. Last year was the first time the United States reached the cap, leaving employers stranded whose applications came in beyond mid-March. This year, the country hit the limit on Jan. 3, leaving scores of Louisiana businesses in jeopardy.

"We don't know for sure, but we can only assume that other states' requests are up," says Louisiana Department of Labor Press Secretary Ed Pratt. Pratt's records show that the number of businesses in Louisiana applying for H2B workers rose steadily for the past three years, though state and regional level records do not show the amount of workers requested per application. (U.S. Department of Labor offices did not return calls by press time.) The current labor shortage has left many businesses, revving up for upcoming harvests and peak production periods, in a quagmire.

"I just don't know what to do anymore," says Crystal Marceaux, bookkeeper with Gulf Crown Seafood in Delcambre. Since 1994, Gulf Crown has brought in 60 H2B employees from April to December to package the 10 million pounds of shrimp it annually distributes. The workers make $5.15 an hour, and many send part of their wages to their families back home. This year, Marceaux's applications didn't reach the Department of Homeland Security for approval until after the federal cap had already been met.

The stringent federal regulations governing immigrant workers only allow for businesses to submit their applications for seasonal H2B within 120 days of the time the immigrants are needed to work. Applications also spend nearly two months going through state and regional offices before reaching the Department of Homeland Security for approval. So even though Marceaux turned her application over to the state prior to Jan. 3, it wasn't in federal jurisdiction until after the cap had been met ' automatically denying all her H2B worker applications.

"I have no idea how I'll be able to process," Marceaux says. The same 60 workers she buses in each year from Topolobampo, on the western coast of Mexico, call her every week to check on their status. "They're waiting patiently," Marceaux says. "And hopefully something will change. I've been complaining and trying to get workers here, and it's just not working." The labor shortage could end up having a ripple effect on the state's economy. "If we can't process shrimp then I don't know what the boats are going to do with their product either," says Marceaux.

Most of the state's sugar cane farmers also use H2B workers, in addition to H2A workers. H2A workers are strictly used for agricultural fieldwork, and there are no restrictions on how many can be imported. (Since June 2004, Louisiana has secured 2,381 H2A workers.) Butch Pauche, of Cinclare Central Factory in Brusly, says the only way sugar processors were able to get H2B workers last year was to reapply after the new federal fiscal year started in October. Pauche says he usually likes to begin harvesting in September but didn't get his workers in until the beginning of October. Because of the short crop last year, they were able to finish before the first freeze in late December.

"If you have a long crop, and you don't have enough time to process all the cane before a freeze, it could be devastating for the industry," he says.

Plauche, Marceaux, Hebert and many others are now trying to lobby their congressional delegation to pass a proposed bill, now co-sponsored by Reps. Charles Boustany of Lafayette and Richard Baker of Baton Rouge, to lift the cap for the next two years for businesses that have legally used H2B workers for the past three years. The bill also aims to raise the fine on employers who avoid eligible local labor in favor of cheaper immigrants to up to $10,000. It also calls for the Department of Homeland Security to annually report salaries and origin countries of H2B immigrants.

However, Hebert and others say they have encountered hesitation from Louisiana's U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, who may be awaiting more sweeping immigrant reform, such as the President's initiative to provide temporary relief to illegal immigrants already working in the country.

But Hebert says his pool production business ' which grew 35 percent over the past five years and expanded to open another facility in Illinois ' can't wait much longer for political reforms.

This year alone, he invested more than $500,000 expanding his factory in anticipation of doubling production this summer ' a goal dependent on 28 H2B workers. The workers were scheduled to arrive on March 1, and Hebert found out on Feb. 22 that their visas were denied. He's been scrambling to find local workers ever since.

"None of them want to work," he says. "It's a joke. We'd like to hire people from here. This is a last resort before we go buy property in Mexico to move our plant. Because if this keeps up that's exactly what we're going to do."