Workers finish concrete for the base of a runway at the site of the new Williston Basin International Airport in this 2019 file photo. Contractors moved in thousands of tons of cement to finish the airport time time for its opening on Oct. 10, 2019.
H-2B Visas have been touted by some as the ideal way to fill seasonal, hard-to-hire, non-agricultural positions. But a report by Local Jobs North says they’re being used too often by some companies, to fill what would otherwise be desirable positions, at the expense of American workers.
The report examined their use in North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota and says the program deprived North Dakota’s economy of $85 million, and western North Dakota specifically of $23 million. The estimate was based on the spending patterns of such workers, who the group said tend to send most of the money they make out of the country, to their families.
Among examples cited in the report was some of the construction work at the Williston Basin International Airport, which opened in October of last year.
Winn Construction was awarded some of the concrete work for airport paving as a subcontractor of JE Dunn. This work included some site work and paving of the terminal drive lane, sidewalks, elevated decks, and the air rescue/snow removal facility's foundation. Winn was one of 100 or so prime and sub-contractors that worked on the project.
According to the Local Jobs North report, Winn has been using H-2B visa workers since 2008, and was certified to employ nearly three dozen such workers while the airport was under construction.
Experienced local construction workers who tried to get hired by the project, among them a worker named Daniel, told the Williston Herald they had no luck.
Daniel has been in the Williston area for eight to nine years and is a veteran concrete hand.
He said he was at first excited to hear about the airport project, particularly as local officials had suggested the firms would make an effort to hire locally.
“I even moved right here outside the airport,” Daniel said. “We thought we’d have a job for like two or three years.”
But Daniel said he and his friends weren’t able to even get applications for the jobs.
“We would go over there because we’d heard they will need a lot of guys,” Daniel said. “They’d tell us every time we don’t need any right now. Then we’d watch 20, 30, 40 more guys come.”
Eventually, from talking to some of the workers, Daniel learned the laborers were all foreign workers. Daniel said he was told they were being trained for the work somewhere else.
“I could see it if we were all inexperienced and didn’t know what we are doing, but we were all experienced workers,” Daniel said, listing bypasses that go toward and around the airport and work on Highway 85 as among projects he had been involved in.
Winn Construction was called by the Williston Herald for comment on their efforts to hire locally, but did not return the call.
Winn had been set to employ twice the number of H-2B visa workers this year as it did last year, according to the Local Jobs North report.
That was despite the pandemic, which left thousands of oilfield workers without jobs.
Lucas Franco, who prepared the report, acknowledged the state does have a labor crunch, which many employers have said makes it difficult to hire local workers. But, he said, it also has a huge pool of workers in low-paying retail jobs, many of whom might be interested in filling these positions instead of foreign workers.
“Twenty-two dollars an hour is better than what people in accommodations and food service are generally paid,” he said. “So we see an opportunity for an upward ladder here. With sufficient investment in recruitment, we think a lot of those jobs could be filled with workers from lower paid segments of the economy.”
Those workers might require some training, but often, so do the foreign workers being hired, Franco said.
“Winn is a clear example of how, despite the availability of veteran construction workers eager to find work, they couldn’t find work on that project,” Franco added. “It is troubling that one of the contractors on (the airport) project was relying on the H-2B visa workers despite all of the local workforce.”
Franco acknowledged that federal rules require companies using the H-2B visa program to make an effort to seek local workers. But he said, the effort can be very minimal, rather than meaningful. Companies can simply publish the advertisements on dates when they’re unlikely to be seen, like Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.