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July 2000, Volume 7, Number 7

Labor: AFL-CIO, H-1B, H-2B

The US unemployment rate rose to 4.1 percent in May 2000, and the California rate rose to five percent.

AFL-CIO. The 68-union AFL-CIO in February 2000 called for legalization of the estimated six million unauthorized foreigners in the US, an end to the enforcement of employer sanctions, and stepped-up enforcement of labor laws to prevent worker exploitation. This was an historic shift of position, since US unions have traditionally opposed unauthorized immigration and supported sanctions on employers to discourage such migration.

John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union and one of the leaders of the call for the policy shift on sanctions and legalization, said "There has been a real fear, I think, amongst a lot of workers about losing jobs. On the other hand, if you look at our history, the labor movement was built by immigrants. It's going to be rebuilt by immigrants or not at all…. We have a unique opportunity here. The whole country is waking up to the fact that immigrants are once again providing new vitality and energy, and really sparking our economy and our labor movement. We ought not be timid. If we are vigorous about it, I think we can, in the next couple of years, pass a new amnesty, repeal employer sanctions and create an immigration policy that makes sense."

The AFL-CIO and member unions organized rallies around the US in support of legalization. The largest such rally was held in June 2000 in Los Angeles; some 13,000 people showed up to cheer speakers who urged that unauthorized foreigners be legalized, the largest crowd so far in a series of AFL-CIO-sponsored rallies. AFL-CIO unions won 600,000 new members in 1999, including 91,000 in Los Angeles County (74,000 of these new members were home health care workers).

Unions are increasingly forming partnerships with Hispanic groups to organize migrant workers. In Omaha, which has 4,000 meatpacking workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and Omaha Together/One Community (OTAC) announced plans in June 2000 to mount a joint organizing campaign to get workers to stand up for their labor rights. The National Coalition for Dignity and Amnesty has scheduled marches around the country on October 14, 2000 to call for "an Unconditional General Amnesty Law."

H-1B. The annual limit on the number of H-1B foreign professionals will fall from the current 115,000 a year to 107,500 on October 1, 2000, unless Congress acts on legislation pending in both houses to raise the limit on foreign professionals with a BA or more coming to fill a US job that requires a BA or more. Congress is expected to raise the annual limit to about 200,000, but there is no agreement about what new conditions, if any , should be imposed on their US employers.

President Clinton in May 2000 supported raising the annual quota, saying "at times, U.S. businesses need additional access to the international labor market to maintain and enhance our global competitiveness, particularly in high-growth new technology industries and particularly in tight labor markets."

Some of the major debates over new requirements on US employers were within the Republican party. House immigration subcommittee chair Lamar Smith (R-TX), proposed lifting the quota entirely, but requiring US employers to show that they raised wages and sought US workers before they received permission to hire H-1Bs. Senate immigration subcommittee chair Spencer Abraham (R-MI), on the other hand, would simply raise the annual limit without changing current H-1B admissions rules. Most high-tech firms favor the Abraham bill.

Reports and articles aimed at influencing the debate in Congress continued to be released. A US Department of Commerce report in June 2000 concluded that information technology "has become the driving force of the American economy." The report noted that: "There is no single common definition of 'IT worker' and no agreed-upon method for identifying an occupational shortfall. In theory, market forces will eventually resolve any imbalance between supply and demand." According to the report, the average annual IT salary is $58,000 a year.

The report continued: "The Bureau of Labor Statistics examined the available national employment and wage data for core IT occupations over the period 1992 to 1997. They reasoned that an imbalance should produce above-average growth in both employment and wages, and below-average unemployment rates. BLS found that while the unemployment rates for core IT occupations were consistently lower than the national average for this period, employment and wage growth had not been consistently above average for all core IT occupations. They concluded that the evidence on IT labor market imbalances remains ambiguous… One possible explanation [for slow wage growth] is that businesses have been using non-wage benefits such as stock options to attract employees. Other reasons may be that the rapid growth of employment in these areas has reduced the median experience and skill level, suppressing median wage growth, or that high relative pay and a sense of job security may be keeping down additional wage gains."

The INS reported that the leading US requesters of H-1B visas between October 1999 and February 2000 were Motorola (618 H-1B visa petitions approved during the five-month period), followed by Oracle Corp. (455) and Cisco Systems (398). The H-1B Hall of Shame, run by an opponent of the H-1B program, lists the top 100 H-1B employers between May 1997 and March 1998. For more information: />
About 1,000, or one percent, of the H-1B visas granted in recent years went to K-12 teachers. Several businesses market foreign teachers to US school districts, including Multicultural Professionals, which advertises Filipino teachers. Multicultural Professionals charges foreign teachers $6,000 to be presented in a three-minute video to school districts seeking teachers; the company then helps school districts complete the H-1B application process.

H-2B. The H-2B program permits US employers who anticipate labor shortages to request DOL to certify their need for foreign workers to fill temporary or seasonal jobs. Unlike the H-2A program for farm workers, employers of nonfarm H-2B workers do not have to provide their workers with free housing, or pay the government-set Adverse Effect Wage Rate; they need offer only the minimum wage.

Hotels and restaurants along the eastern seaboard use both the H-2B program and the J-1 exchange visitor program to obtain temporary foreign workers. The Essential Workers Coalition has been formed to persuade Congress to ease US employer access to unskilled foreign workers.

The US Department of Labor is revamping the labor certification process for: (1) economic-employment immigrants, such as H-1B workers seeking green cards; and (2) nonimmigrant H-2B (unskilled workers). The new system, known as the Program Electronic Review Management or PERM system substitutes a quasi-attestation process for the current labor certification process, reducing the old 11-step certification process to a four-step process, and reducing the time between employer application and DOL certification to one to two weeks.

When implemented later in 2000, the system will work as follows: an employer application for DOL certification of the need for an immigrant (EB visa or green card) or a temporary unskilled foreign worker (H-2B visa) will be scanned into a DOL computer (after the employer pays a $1,500 fee) and compared to DOL wage and other thresholds for that occupation and area. Applications with data that satisfy DOL thresholds will be approved; others will be identified for audit. All employers will be subject to random audits.

Labor. The job market for US college graduates is booming, with computer science majors receiving an average $48,500 starting salaries, accounting majors $37,200, and liberal arts graduates $29,100. Consequently, fewer BA/BS students are going on to graduate school, leaving more graduate student slots to be filled by foreigners.

US workers who were union members earned an average of $16.21 in 1999, plus $8.53 in benefits; non-union workers averaged $13.54, plus $4.66 in benefits. The federal minimum wage is $5.15 an hour; seven states have minimum wages above $5.15, including California, $5.75, and Oregon and Washington, $6.50. Massachusetts will raise its minimum wage to $6.75 in 2001. An increasing number of US cities are setting still higher minimums.

More US employers are hiring foreign exchange visitors to work, especially to fill seasonal service jobs in resort areas. In 1999, there were about 43,000 foreign students who came to the US for up to four months through a work-travel program; 60,000 are expected in 2000.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics defines contingent workers as "persons who hold jobs that are temporary or not expected to last." Under this definition, contingent workers include independent contractors, on-call workers and employees of temporary help firms. In 1999, BLS estimated that 5.6 million (4.3 percent) of the 131 million US employees were contingent workers.

The broader category of "workers with alternative employment arrangements" had 12.4 million employees: including 8.5 million independent contractors; 2.2 million on-call day laborers; and 1.2 million employees of temporary help firms. Alternative employment arrangements include workers who expect their jobs to last more than one year.