The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) commends the bipartisan Senate sponsors of legislation to advance comprehensive immigration reform and today called on lawmakers to improve the guest worker provisions in the bill to address the significant role that foreign workers play in the housing industry and to help alleviate current labor challenges that are hampering the housing and economic recovery.
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744), NAHB Chairman Rick Judson, a home builder and developer from Charlotte, N.C., urged Congress to implement a new market-based visa system that would allow more immigrants to legally enter the construction workforce each year.
"Despite our efforts to recruit and train American workers through the HBI Job Corps program and other programs, our industry faces a very real impediment to full recovery if work is delayed or even cancelled due to worker shortages," said Judson. "A new, workable visa program would complement our skills training efforts within the nation's borders, and fill the labor gaps needed to meet the nation's housing needs."
In a recent survey of NAHB's membership, 46 percent of the builders surveyed experienced delays in completing projects on time, 15 percent had to turn down some projects and 9 percent lost or cancelled sales as a result of recent labor shortages.
Foreign-born workers have traditionally played a vibrant and important role in home building. Today, they account for 22 percent of the construction labor force, according to the Census Bureau. Moreover, trades with a high concentration of immigrant workers also tend to have more vacancies and labor shortages. There are currently 116,000 unfilled positions open in the construction sector - a post-recession high.
While the W Visa program that addresses a guest worker program for the low-skill sector within Senate bill S. 744 reflects a good-faith attempt on the part of lawmakers to address a serious concern, NAHB believes the program is unworkable for the residential construction industry.
"First and foremost, the program wrongly singles out the construction industry with a discriminating set of rules, including an arbitrary and meager cap that not only ignores but rejects the value of the housing industry to the nation's GDP," said Judson. "Our industry, which in normal times accounts for more than 17 percent of the nation's total economic output, should be afforded the same opportunities as any other sector of the economy. Congress must reassess this critical flaw in the legislation."
Judson also outlined other components of the W Visa program as areas of concern:
· The 8.5 percent unemployment trigger. Putting an unemployment trigger in the program ignores the simple fact that immigrant workers and native-born workers sometimes perform jobs that are independent. Moreover, with the current unemployment rate well below 8 percent, labor shortages in all facets of the industry - including framers, carpenters, bricklayers and weatherization workers - continue to undermine the housing recovery.
· Prevailing wages. Employers will already have to pay fees for self-registration and any positions needed. Further adding a complex prevailing wage scale to the program will deter private small business firms from taking advantage of it. Employees should be paid market rate, or actual wages.
· The inclusion of a commission in the W Visa program. The marketplace is best-suited to make wage and worker shortage determinations, not a new bureaucratic entity, said Judson. The most accurate way to measure whether immigrant workers are needed is for employers to try, and either succeed or fail, to hire U.S. workers.
· Complete portability. Under this provision, a registered employer faces the stark reality that a W Visa holder has the option to quit and work somewhere else beginning on the very first day of work. NAHB believes that it is only fair that employers have some assurances that after navigating a confusing and expensive process, the visa holder will actually have to show up and work for the employer who sponsored the worker. This concern is even more pronounced for the construction industry, considering the meager 15,000 visa cap. Employers should receive a credit for losses incurred.