The landscaping business has never been easy. But this year, it's harder than ever. And no, global warming has nothing to do with it.
Take Joe Chiera, who owns Impact Landscape & Maintenance in Boston Heights, Ohio. Chiera is used to dealing with shifting labor, unpredictable weather, environmental concerns and navigating the challenges of managing cash in a seasonal business. But this year, he's got another huge challenge: no workers.
"We are having major struggles finding people to work," Chiera told the Akron Beacon Journal. "No one wants to hear me. No one cares."
People do hear him. People do care. Those people are other landscapers. That's because Chiera's not the only landscaper feeling the heat. Businesses like him across the country are also struggling - and for the same reasons. They're finding themselves at the epicenter of an economic perfect storm: a historically low unemployment rate combined with a dire shortage of seasonal workers. Why the shortage? Most, if not all, blame Washington.
The problem isn't a new one. For the past few years seasonal businesses like landscapers, resorts and tourist attractions around the country have had to fight over a dwindling supply of legal immigrants allowed to come to this country for a short-term period under the federal H2B visa program. But, as concerns (and attention) about immigration have increased, the program has come under more scrutiny - and used as a media tool to demonstrate the government's efforts to crack down on immigrants. The government this year said that it would cap the program to only 66,000 immigrants - a number that many consider to be woefully low.
Meanwhile, a strong economy has not only created a surge in demand for landscaping services but a low unemployment environment where even companies offering generous benefits are struggling to find good people to fill jobs. Just this week, government data showed that there were more jobs available than workers for the first time since recordkeeping of this data began in 2000. Adding to an employer's headaches is a shortage of available college students who are drawn towards internships, a desire by many Americans to avoid manual jobs (even though many pay as much as twice the national minimum wage) and more people failing drug tests due to the legalization of marijuana in many parts of the country.
All of these challenges have put an enormous squeeze on many small businesses in the landscaping industry, where low skilled workers are in high demand. It's already causing some businesses to cut overhead, reduce capital investments and even consider going out of business.
Jason Turpin, who owns Turpin Landscape and Design in Coatesville, PA, is concerned about his company's future. "If the cap is not addressed, businesses, including ours, will have to turn down contracts, lay off U.S. workers and possibly close down," Turpin said in this Daily Local News report. "This is a disaster right now."
The good news is that the problem is fixable. The 66,000 cap on immigrant workers allowed into the country is an arbitrary number and is pretty easy to change. In fact, the government increased the cap by 15,000 this past May in response to many pleas from the business community. But the increase is still not enough and in today's politically-charged, anti-immigration environment upping the number even higher is a tall order.
Yes, illegal immigration is a major issue in this country. There are too many people here that have broken the law to be here. And I personally know a few unscrupulous small business owners who have used these people's illegal status to take advantage of them by paying them much less than they deserve. I sympathize with them.
But it's also a very unfair predicament for both natural-born Americans and the millions of hard-working immigrants who abide by the law and made the effort to get their green cards the right way. Those workers, and other temporary, legal workers shouldn't be punished. And neither should the businesses who employ them. The problems faced by the landscaping industry during this summer of 2018 underscores the pressing need for a complete overhaul of our national immigration system. If not addressed, the consequences will grow.
"We will have to cut a lot of American jobs," Turpin said. "This is absolutely political.