Pennsylvania employers brought in 3,418 unskilled or low-skilled foreign workers under the federal government's H-2B visa program during fiscal year 2012 to fill jobs they said U.S. citizens in Pennsylvania don't want, at wages the Labor Department says are at or above local averages.
Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and Spa, which operates a state-licensed gambling casino at Farmington, south of Pittsburgh near the Maryland line, was certified by the US Department of Labor to bring in 98 foreign maids and housekeepers, and 34 dishwashers, for the biggest H-2B workforce in the state.
"We just don't have the labor pool around here to fill these much needed positions," general manager Chris Plummer told me. "The paperwork for this program is difficult and time-consuming. It would be much less expensive to hire local workers. But we raised the rate on housekeepers by $2," to over $10 an hour, the federal minimum for foreign workers in the program, "and we still can't find local workers to do those jobs." Nemacolin is owned by 84 Lumber magnate Joseph Hardy 3d and his daughter, Maggie Hardy-Magerko.
Closer to home, Philadelphia Country Club was certified to bring in 22 landscapers and groundskeepers at a minimum $8.68 an hour, and nine food prep supervisors and serving workers, starting at $10. The White Manor, Llanerch, Green Valley and Meadowlands golf clubs, among others in the Philadelphia area, also imported foreign labor to keep the greens clipped or the dining-room glasses clean.
Stokesay Castle, a restaurant near Reading, was approved for 28 "formal" waiters and waitresses, at a minimum $7.61 an hour, and two cooks, at $10.67.
A Blue Bell dentist was certified to import a dental hygenist at $26 an hour. A handful of construction and manufacturing companies were also certified to import labor, though local building trades complain demand for skilled workers is still slack. Managers at PCC, Stokesay and the dentist's office didn't return calls.
Most of the H-2B workers - 2,551 of the total - were hired by dozens of suburban landscaping firms.
Landscaping contractors who use H-2B workers have told me privately that they prefer to use legal foreign labor, despite all the paperwork and fees, because that way they pick up reliable workers, which they can't find around Philadelphia for the work they do at the wages they pay. They also prefer to avoid the risk of using "illegal" undocumented workers. But they're afraid to say so in public.