Congress Acts to Delay Crisis in Reforestation Guestworker Rules

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The December 17 passage of the Omnibus Appropriations bill prevents the U.S. Department of Labor from implementing an onerous “Wage Rule” that would have established non-market wage guidelines for migrant guestworkers brought to the United States under the H-2B Visa Program. Because of a provision the Forest Resources Association and other members of the H-2B Workforce Coalition worked with Congress to include, DOL may not enforce, or implement, its new Wage Rule at least until October 1, 2012.

While the wage-setting formula the DOL is trying to implement would affect each state differently, FRA’s Forestry Contractor Task Group estimates that, if implemented, the Rule would increase average tree planting costs by approximately $30 per acre, discouraging reforestation and threatening the U.S.’s long-term wood supply. Based on 2.5 million acres of annual U.S. reforestation, Congress has prevented the imposition of $75.1 million in new costs on the country’s wood supply system in this planting season.

“DOL’s determination to place migrant workers’ compensation outside of market forces came close to creating a disaster for reforestation contractors,” commented FRA Forestry Contractor Task Group Chairman Mike Kelly. “The result would have been to depress reforestation by adding new costs to the expenses of forestland ownership, ultimately leading to the conversion of forests to other uses, as well as to additional mill closures.”

FRA President Richard Lewis stressed that Congress’s action is not a permanent solution and that the Coalition’s campaign would extend into 2012: “Our goal is long-term, for Congress to ensure that the H-2B program’s wage formula reflects actual labor market conditions into the future.”

FRA and its allies in other sectors that use H-2B workers--landscaping, seafood-processing, and hospitality industries, among others--are also suing DOL to overturn the Wage Rule. The Federal Court for the Western District of Louisiana recently transferred that suit, The Louisiana Forestry Association v. Solis, to the Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania, where a new hearing will be scheduled.