The H-2B guestworker program puts downward pressure on American wages

This past January, the Department of Labor (DOL) published a final rule establishing a new wage methodology for determining the appropriate wages to be paid to guestworkers in the “H-2B” program—a temporary immigrant guestworker category intended to help employers fill labor shortages. Among other things, U.S. law and regulation require that H-2B workers only be authorized to enter and work in the United States if the H-2B worker’s employment will not be “adversely affecting the wages” of United States workers. The DOL’s new rule will require that H-2B workers receive the average wage paid to all workers in the same occupation and geographical region in order to prevent downward pressure on the wages of U.S. workers. But for now, the rule’s implementation has been delayed—and a lobbying firestorm by businesses and members of Congress, led by Senator Barbara Mikulski from Maryland—has put its survival in doubt.

The chart below shows the difference between the hourly rate that H-2B crab pickers and landscape workers are currently paid in Maryland under the old (and still current) rule, and the statewide average for all workers in the given occupation, which is what workers should be paid in order to prevent wages from being depressed for U.S. workers. H-2B crab pickers and landscapers are underpaid by $4.82 and $3.35 per hour, respectively.

Click figure to enlarge

These data suggest that employers have been using the H-2B program as a way to degrade the wages of U.S. workers. H-2B crab pickers in Maryland (i.e., workers who literally pick the meat out of a crab, like this), who fall under the occupational category of “Meat, Poultry, and Fish Cutters and Trimmers” above, are paid the federal minimum wage ($7.25), when the state-wide average is $12.07 per hour.

Another way to look at this is that a crab picker earning the state average will earn $25,105 over the course of a year, which is above the poverty line for a family of four ($22,113). But current H-2B crab pickers only earn $15,080 a year—which is about $7,000 below the poverty line. For landscapers in Maryland, the results are similar—in both cases the increase in hourly wage will literally lift the H-2B worker out of poverty.

You can read more about the H-2B program and the Labor Department’s wage rule in my new extended commentary, H-2B employers and their congressional allies are fighting hard to keep wages low for immigrant and American workers.