CLEVELAND - Landscapers across northeast Ohio are worried that what could be a boom spring/summer season may turn into a bust or worse.
"This lack of labor is going to decide whether we grow, survive, or close," says Joe Drake, president of J.F.D. Landscapes in Chagrin Falls.
The small business owners say they can't get enough American workers to take jobs at competitive wages and two programs which usually allow them to hire seasonal foreign workers are stalled in Congress.
Asked if they could attract more U.S. workers by paying higher wages, Ken Thiergartner of Brookside Landscape in Medina says, "We hear that story a lot. It's a misconception. We start everyone out at $13.10 an hour. Almost double what minimum wage is."
Critics contend that allowing foreign workers into the United States for seasonal worker depresses American wages.
"Immigration could lower wages or lower employment for lower-skilled people," says Jenny Hawkins, a professor of economics at Case Western Reserve University," but that's only if the U.S. workers want the job."
Landscapers says the last point is the one that many people don't understand ... they can't find enough Americans who will reliably show up for work to take these jobs.
"Every time somebody sees a Mexican worker here, they think they're here illegally," says Drake, "and we have to explain it, even to our own clients."
The workers come under a federal program known as "H2B" that allows U.S. companies to hire foreign seasonal workers if they can't find American workers for the jobs.
The program requires the foreign workers to pay into Social Security and Medicare, as well as pay state and federal taxes on what they earn, but they cannot collect benefits.
By law, the companies have to pay a prevailing wage to the workers, who are allowed in the U.S. only for the season, before returning home.
"The H2B program always seems to get drug into the immigration issue," Thiergartner says, "and it's really not an immigration issue."
Professor Hawkins says foreign seasonal workers often complement higher-skilled American workers, and help the economy expand.
Some mid-level managers at landscaping companies say they are worried because their jobs depend on having workers, usually mostly foreign workers, to supervise.
"If I didn't have that group of guys here that work on my side year to year, I'm out of a job," says Matt Drda of Morton's Landscaping.
Representative Jim Renacci says he is surprised that companies can find more American workers, but adds, "too often, Americans don't want these low-skilled positions, and they're going unfilled."
Renacci is one sponsor of a bill that would try to address the issue.
Right now, the number of foreign workers allowed in under H2B is capped at 66,000 a year - and only 33,000 for the spring/summer season.
In addition, Congress has let expire a program that allowed returning foreign workers to come back without counting against those caps.
U.S. companies have already applied for 80,000 worker visas this year which is more than the law currently allows.
"We have to look at the cap, the 66,000 per year, but we also have to allow returning workers to not be considered in the cap," Renacci says.
The landscapers say, for the spring, the time is running short for Congress to act and they are worried.
"Every time we have a bank loan for our business or our equipment, I sign it personally as the president," Drake says, "and my wife also has to sign it, and we guarantee it personally."
Two months until the start of their season, the landscapers say they don't have any guarantees that they'll have the workers they need for the spring.