Few realize that the family-owned and operated pool manufacturer is now one of the largest wholesale fiberglass pool distributor in America, shipping out some 500 pools at more than $4 million a year. Tony Hebert, who took over the business for his father in 1986, even took the company's name out of the phone book 16 years ago because he didn't need more customers. "Most people don't believe how productive we are," Hebert says in his thick Cajun accent. "We ship pools from the Great Lakes to the Grand Cayman Islands. We don't have a salesman. We don't look for any new work. But we bring a lot of money into the state of Louisiana."
But Hebert says if Congress doesn't quickly change the laws for importing seasonal, unskilled immigrant workers, he's uprooting the family business to Mexico. His father has tried to convince him for the past few years to export the company because of labor shortage issues. This year, it's become a crisis.
"I don't know any manufacturer that's in business that doesn't say that labor is their biggest headache," he says. "If we don't get any relief, we're not going to fight this labor issue. There are people over there begging for work."
Since the early 1990s, thousands of Latin American immigrants have legally made their way into Louisiana to help more than 100 different employers in the state cover their seasonal labor shortages for manufacturing and agricultural and seafood processing. Employers who bring in this temporary help must prove that they have advertised for local workers to no avail.
"Who wants to work four months out of the year?" asks Kelly Couch, a New Roads-based consultant who helps businesses bring in immigrant labor. "[Employers] are dependent upon these workers," she says. Couch became accustomed to the rigorous application process for immigrant labor over the past decade while she and her husband imported workers for their sod farm.
"[Businesses] have no choice, and I think we've come to the point that it's really a win-win situation when these guys come in," she says. "It affords the local laborers more of an opportunity for advancement."
According to the state Department of Labor, Louisiana had 9,980 temporary immigrant workers ' named H2B immigrants after the visas they apply for ' in the state from October '03 to September '04. The demand for H2B workers in Louisiana has grown, but the state is getting less than half of that number this year. From the start of the federal fiscal year last October, the Department of Homeland Security licensed 4,459 immigrant workers for Louisiana, denying all others. This is because of a congressionally mandated cap instituted in 1991 that only allows a total of 66,000 H2B workers into the country each year. Last year was the first time the United States reached the cap, leaving employers stranded whose applications came in beyond mid-March. This year, the country hit the limit on Jan. 3, leaving scores of Louisiana businesses in jeopardy.
"We don't know for sure, but we can only assume that other states' requests are up," says Louisiana Department of Labor Press Secretary Ed Pratt. Pratt's records show that the number of businesses in Louisiana applying for H2B workers rose steadily for the past three years, though state and regional level records do not show the amount of workers requested per application. (U.S. Department of Labor offices did not return calls by press time.) The current labor shortage has left many businesses, revving up for upcoming harvests and peak production periods, in a quagmire.
"I just don't know what to do anymore," says Crystal Marceaux, bookkeeper with Gulf Crown Seafood in Delcambre. Since 1994, Gulf Crown has brought in 60 H2B employees from April to December to package the 10 million pounds of shrimp it annually distributes. The workers make $5.15 an hour, and many send part of their wages to their families back home. This year, Marceaux's applications didn't reach the Department of Homeland Security for approval until after the federal cap had already been met.
The stringent federal regulations governing immigrant workers only allow for businesses to submit their applications for seasonal H2B within 120 days of the time the immigrants are needed to work. Applications also spend nearly two months going through state and regional offices before reaching the Department of Homeland Security for approval. So even though Marceaux turned her application over to the state prior to Jan. 3, it wasn't in federal jurisdiction until after the cap had been met ' automatically denying all her H2B worker applications.
"I have no idea how I'll be able to process," Marceaux says. The same 60 workers she buses in each year from Topolobampo, on the western coast of Mexico, call her every week to check on their status. "They're waiting patiently," Marceaux says. "And hopefully something will change. I've been complaining and trying to get workers here, and it's just not working." The labor shortage could end up having a ripple effect on the state's economy. "If we can't process shrimp then I don't know what the boats are going to do with their product either," says Marceaux.
Most of the state's sugar cane farmers also use H2B workers, in addition to H2A workers. H2A workers are strictly used for agricultural fieldwork, and there are no restrictions on how many can be imported. (Since June 2004, Louisiana has secured 2,381 H2A workers.) Butch Pauche, of Cinclare Central Factory in Brusly, says the only way sugar processors were able to get H2B workers last year was to reapply after the new federal fiscal year started in October. Pauche says he usually likes to begin harvesting in September but didn't get his workers in until the beginning of October. Because of the short crop last year, they were able to finish before the first freeze in late December.
"If you have a long crop, and you don't have enough time to process all the cane before a freeze, it could be devastating for the industry," he says.
Plauche, Marceaux, Hebert and many others are now trying to lobby their congressional delegation to pass a proposed bill, now co-sponsored by Reps. Charles Boustany of Lafayette and Richard Baker of Baton Rouge, to lift the cap for the next two years for businesses that have legally used H2B workers for the past three years. The bill also aims to raise the fine on employers who avoid eligible local labor in favor of cheaper immigrants to up to $10,000. It also calls for the Department of Homeland Security to annually report salaries and origin countries of H2B immigrants.
However, Hebert and others say they have encountered hesitation from Louisiana's U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, who may be awaiting more sweeping immigrant reform, such as the President's initiative to provide temporary relief to illegal immigrants already working in the country.
But Hebert says his pool production business ' which grew 35 percent over the past five years and expanded to open another facility in Illinois ' can't wait much longer for political reforms.
This year alone, he invested more than $500,000 expanding his factory in anticipation of doubling production this summer ' a goal dependent on 28 H2B workers. The workers were scheduled to arrive on March 1, and Hebert found out on Feb. 22 that their visas were denied. He's been scrambling to find local workers ever since.
"None of them want to work," he says. "It's a joke. We'd like to hire people from here. This is a last resort before we go buy property in Mexico to move our plant. Because if this keeps up that's exactly what we're going to do."
Thursday's Blogs from the Bog!
Dogs get back-to-school blues; mother pleads for release of journalist; ice bucket challenge and more national and international news for Thursday, August 28, 2014.
A group supporting taxpayer-funded private school tuition vouchers is appealing a federal judge's order that Louisiana must provide regular reports to federal officials on the state's voucher program.
The Discovery Channel has canceled reality TV star Will Hayden's popular "Sons of Guns" show after his arrest on an aggravated rape charge.
The LPSB will finally hear from the attorney it hired to investigate the superintendent at a special meeting Thursday at 4 p.m.
Authorities are investigating a report that a student there warned the principal of impending violence similar to that depicted in the movie "The Purge."
Saints cornerback Champ Bailey has played for more than a handful of playoff teams during a career that has seen him selected to 12 Pro Bowls.
Police say a 56-year-old Lafayette man walking behind a dump truck died when the truck hit him as it was backing up.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is a proud papa of new baby girl.
The books on Louisiana's last budget year have been closed, but it took a bit of borrowing from this year to make the numbers work.
The Iberia Parish Coroner responded Monday to the attention surrounding the questionable shooting of Victor White III, a black man from New Iberia who died April 2 while in the custody of local law enforcement.
Two months after lawmakers agreed to create a $40 million higher education incentive fund, no decisions have been made about how to divide the money.
With Drew Brees back healthy, the New Orleans Saints are free to work on the little things that can make the difference between a Super Bowl run and something less.
Incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and her lead GOP challenger Congressman Bill Cassidy are running close when it comes to money. Landrieu has $5.5 million to Cassidy’s $5.6 million in the bank.
With expectations mounting that Gov. Bobby Jindal will soon announce his campaign for president, attention is turning to not only who he will bring along with him but also what will transpire politically back home during the transition.
Seven of the 11 U.S. cities in a new ranking of “most dangerous diets” are in the Bayou and Lone Star states, but the ranking is more about poverty than fried oysters.
Lafayette police are investigating a fatal shooting involving an alleged burglar and homeowner.
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham got the message from the NFL. He's not dunking footballs over goal posts any more.
With qualifying over, the start of campaign season is official, and for the Lafayette Parish School Board, the race toward Nov. 4 will pit 20 candidates in battles for all 9 of the district’s available seats.
An abortion rights organization has filed the first court challenge to a Louisiana law that would require doctors who perform abortions to be able to admit patients to a nearby hospital.
U.S. Rep. Vance McAllister started his sign-up for re-election Friday the same as any other candidate, filling out paperwork and handing over cash to pay his qualifying fee. But he finished it quite differently, doused with ice.
The recent release of Victor White III’s autopsy report could spell trouble, as it tells a much different story of his death than the one told five months ago by the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office.
“Candidates for Congress and members of Congress spend between 30 and 70 percent of their time raising money to get back to Congress or to get their party back into power.”
Over the last four days of the trial against attorney Daniel Stanford, there’s been one notable absence from Judge Elizabeth Foote’s courtroom: attorney Bill Goode.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees and wide receiver Nick Toon are not on the same page yet, and time is running short for Toon to get it right.