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Construction projects have the potential to create family-supporting career and employment opportunities for local workers. A big commercial or infrastructure project can have an especially strong impact in parts of rural areas where quality jobs and opportunities to pursue careers in skilled construction trades are limited.
Unfortunately, local communities lose out when large construction projects are built by contractors that rely heavily on out-of-state or even foreign workers. In Southwest Minnesota, where workers face a severe shortage of family-supporting jobs (average wages are low and there are two job seekers for every full-time job opening), the failure to invest in local construction workers can have far-reaching consequences. Locals are forced to commute long distances to find work, families miss out on paychecks and health coverage, and communities lose the chance to develop a highly-skilled, well-paid construction workforce.
Local 563 and other building trades unions understand the importance of hiring local. That's why we negotiate collective bargaining agreements that require contractors to hire at least half of their workforce through local hiring halls. It's why we offer apprenticeship programs that provide workers who are new to the construction industry with the skills needed to be productive, and stay safe. And it's why we actively recruit new members from local communities across the state -- it just makes sense.
Local 563 also helps to lead the fight for local jobs in other ways. We are in the forefront of numerous efforts to create high-quality career opportunities for local residents, ranging from advocating for job-creating projects such as the proposed Line 3 Pipeline Replacement and wind farms, to holding construction owners accountable for contracting decisions that leave locals out in the cold.
One of these efforts is a campaign to end abuse of the controversial H2B foreign guest worker visa program in the construction industry. Although common in seasonal industries such as tourism, landscaping, and seafood processing, the use of H2B visas is relatively uncommon in the construction industry, where the overwhelming majority of contractors employ locals rather than temporary foreign guest workers. Sadly, however, a handful of contractors have chosen to exploit the program at the expense of locals.
Genuine Builders, a concrete contractor based in Arlington, SD, is among the the top users of the H2B visa program in the construction industry, accounting for roughly a fifth of all applications filed for construction laborers nationwide (nearly 900 of roughly 4,100) between January and July of 2016. Genuine Builders claims that the company has been forced to employ foreign workers because they cannot find enough U.S. workers willing to do the job.
But Genuine Builders visa applications, together with past citations for violations of H2B program rules, indicate that the company has made little, if any, effort to recruit U.S. workers, preferring to employ easily exploited workers who are little more than indentured servants. Further, Genuine Builders has made it extremely difficult for a U.S. worker to even apply for – much less obtain – a job on its construction projects. As one worker who applied for a job at Genuine Builders put it:
“I tried to apply for a job, but they just gave me the runaround. It took three visits just to get an application form, and then I was told I’d be arrested if I showed up again. The message I got was U.S. citizens need not apply.”
Genuine Builders has a bad track record, but it hasn't stopped the company from securing work on big agricultural construction projects across Minnesota and North Dakota, including a 2.8 billion bushel grain facility that the contractor is currently building for Meadowland Farmers Co-op in Walnut Grove, MN. Unfortunately, Meadowland doesn't seem to care that, by using Genuine Builders, they are shortchanging local workers, including long-time customers like Roger Krueger, a family farmer and part-time construction laborer who lives in Tracy, MN. Nor do they seem to care that they have partnered with a company with a history of breaking H2B program rules. For example:
In 2013, Genuine Builders was required to pay more than $180,000 for eight separate violations involving substantial failure to meet Fair Labor Standards Act and H2B program requirements in a case involving 132 workers. The company was fined $41,698 and had to pay $146,642.58 in back wages for violations of overtime laws ($63,130.22) and H2B rules ($83,512.36). The U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) investigation found that workers whose visas restricted them to one of three South Dakota counties were instead deployed across a thirteen-state area that stretched from Arkansas to Idaho. The agency also found that Genuine Builders failed to pay required wage rates or make employment opportunities available to U.S. workers; and that the company gave preferential treatment to foreign workers by offering them raises and overtime that were not advertised to U.S. workers.
In 2015, the Fair Contracting Foundation of Minnesota filed a complaint against Genuine Builders with the U.S. Department of Labor for violations of H2B program rules that echoes findings of the 2013 USDOL investigation. The evidence indicates that H2B visa workers approved to work in South Dakota were instead building an Archer Daniels Midland facility in Glencoe, MN, and that they continued working after the visa period had expired. The staffperson who interviewed H2B workers in Glencoe was also told that they had been working in other areas not covered by their visas, including North Dakota, Iowa, and Washington State.
Genuine Builders H2B visa applications show that the company makes little if any effort to recruit U.S. workers for the projects where it employs H2B visa workers. For example, in a 2015 application for workers in South Dakota, the company lists only a single ad in local papers, and several 2016 applications for workers in Minnesota and North Dakota indicate that the company didn’t even bother running ads or contacting local workforce centers.
One U.S. citizen who attempted to apply for a job at Genuine Builders stated in a sworn affidavit that he had to visit the company’s job site three times over the course of several days to obtain a job application, and that he was threatened with arrest by the project owner when he showed up the third time, as instructed, to pick up the paperwork. The individual further stated that he submitted the application but received no response from Genuine Builders even though the company continues to seek permission to employ H2B visa workers in his area.