Sept. 29 2020 05:56 AM

Contractors face a difficult season with reduced availability of H-2B employees.

It’s difficult to think of a government policy that affects more landscape contractors than the H-2B visa nonimmigrant program. For some landscapers who rely on the visas to provide the experienced labor to drive their businesses, it’s likely been one of the main concerns on their minds this year.

With caps added in the past few years along with additional restrictions, 2020 saw President Trump sign an executive order to suspend the issue of new H-2B visas along with other temporary worker visas. The order didn’t apply to workers already in the U.S. and provided other exceptions (including providing labor for those essential to the food chain). A lack of available H-2B labor has left some landscapers facing a tough year that was already complicated by COVID-19 and looking at an uncertain future.

Joe Drake, owner of J.F.D. Landscapes in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, has been working with H-2B employees since 1998, with the majority returning year over year and even recruiting others to the company. His longest-running returning employee has been with the company for 16 years and now holds a green card.

Typically, Drake runs with a crew of about 30 for maintenance and design/build jobs. This year, he’s down to 16 employees in the field. Two of those include his account manager and salesperson, and two are college students who left in August for school.

In a similar position, Evan Evanovich, president of The Landscape Center by Evanovich in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, who provides design/build installs for medium- to high-end residential customers, had 14 employees on his crew last year. This year, he’s down to six after the college students he pulled in for the season left. Refilling those positions with local labor hasn’t worked as an option for him.

“If you go around Pittsburgh, anywhere in the suburban community, you can count hundreds of ‘help wanted’ signs,” he says.

Wilbert Lawrence, president of Lawrence Landscaping in Portsmouth, Virginia, tried working with local temporary employment services as well, but didn’t have any luck, he says. With a team of nine employees right now, compared to 14 last year, he’s been working in landscaping with a focus on mostly commercial and city work since he and his father started the business in 1988. The potential employees that he has been able to bring in are unskilled and need a lot of training to bring service up to the standard he’s used to providing for customers. Though he was offering higher pay as an incentive, he got frustrated with the process and worked with his smaller crew to manage the jobs. He’s also spending time out in the field for the first time in eight years, helping train and direct processes and doing the work himself.

Because Lawrence had returning H-2B workers each year, several of those employees had built up a solid amount of experience in his systems and with clients, he says. While he’s feeling that loss, he’s continued to work with his crew to groom them into the team he’s looking for in the meantime, with weekend training sessions and daily guidance on the job.

Dealing with risk

Lawrence has been a part of the program for about nine years and has had most of the same employees returning year over year, he says. He’s gotten used to scheduling jobs based on the crew size with H-2B employees. He knows there’s always a risk in using H-2B workers, but paying the fees involved and having nothing to show for it leaves him in a difficult spot, especially for a smaller contractor.

Drake knew in January that his company had lost out on the lottery, but he had some experience to draw on. He had several industry friends who had faced similar trouble before planning around H-2B workers and made the decision that the company would sacrifice its design/build work for the season to focus on maintenance.

“It’s reoccurring revenue that helps pay the bills,” he says.

He worked with his account manager and operations manager to develop a cut list of clients and jobs through various tiers, and in February he contacted those clients to deliver the news. While it was a tough choice to drastically reduce the planned work for the year, one of the biggest regrets he heard from his industry friends was that they hadn’t cut clients quickly enough. He’s made sure that client contracts have 30-day out clauses to make issues like this as painless as possible.

“I knew someday our pingpong ball would come up and we wouldn’t get visas,” he says.

J.F.D. returned more than $1 million last year, but this year it’s at about $300,000.

The weather worked in Drake’s favor, giving his smaller crew the chance to start spring clean-up early to help keep things manageable, but they had to push to six-day weeks, he says.

“We knew that we had no choice,” he says. While some of his design/build crew wasn’t used to the maintenance work, the whole team put in the effort.

With the downsizing of his crew, Evanovich says he’s looking at a reduction of about a third of his company’s total volume of work compared to last year. His team already routinely works overtime to manage client jobs, so working extra hours wasn’t an option to make up for the loss in labor.

“I just don’t have the men to do it,” Evanovich says.

With his current team, he was still able to take on the majority of the larger jobs he had lined up for 2020, but many of the smaller jobs had to be left behind for the time being. Now, he’s having to be more picky about which jobs he’s able to accomplish with the crew he’s maintaining.

“We still do a phenomenal amount of work,” Evanovich says. “It’s just a matter of you’re short. Instead of a 14- to 15-person crew, you’re working with a seven- to eight-person crew.”

Lawrence has spent a lot of time this season communicating with vendors about the reduction in his crew and the overall amount of work. While most of his vendors have been understanding so far, it’s taken a lot of attention on his part to keep communication lines open. His connections with the city have been even more understanding because they’ve struggled to find temporary workers this year as well.

He’s also focused on communication with his customers, letting them know that while things might take a little longer to finish, he and his team are still dedicated to getting the job done.

“I do believe in communication,” he says. “They know I’m making an effort to get what they need done. It’s just that the quality of the work is just not where I like it and not where it was last year.”

Communication with his crew has also been a major drive for Drake, and it’s helped keep the team moving, he says. He shares sales numbers and the goals for the company monthly, though the current goal is to do as much work as possible while spending as little as possible.

“I’ve always been pretty open with our guys,” he says.

While most of Drake’s clients have been understanding, and he’s stayed in touch with them throughout the season as the team pushed hard to keep up with maintenance work, says he’s anticipating a higher number of non-renewals for next year.

Planning for the future

Looking into next year, Lawrence isn’t making firm plans or putting out many bids because he’s not sure of what kind of crew he’ll have available. Until his current team is to the level that he’d like, he’s not looking to pile on any extra work. From his perspective, it reminds him of when he was just starting out in the business, building from the ground up. For the remainder of this season, he’s not worried about reaching new goals for the company.

“I’m really just trying to get through the season,” he says. “Hopefully I can keep paying these guys like I’ve been paying them, and keep me paid, keep the bills paid.”

Evanovich sees a future in limbo for the company, given the amount of work he’s handling compared to the available labor pool, he says.

“We’re working day by day right now because we’re sound as far as that goes,” he says. But he can’t plan to make any large purchases based on the seasonal work he’s gotten, without knowing if he has the labor to do it.

Even with the reduced crew, he’s grateful that he’s in a stable position compared to some smaller contractors who rely on the program, he says.

“If you’re a nonestablished business or you’ve been growing your business based on a lower margin and revenue and counted on all these guys to fill your trucks and lawn mowers — if that’s your business model and your growth model, you’re in trouble,” he says.

Before next season, Drake and his team are doing a deep-dive analysis into where the company stands with its budget versus actual hours, he says. On top of the lost revenue, he’s holding off on equipment and truck purchases because he doesn’t want to bring on added debt without knowing he’ll have the appropriate workforce next year.

Even missing out and facing a tougher budget this year, Evanovich is planning on trying again next year.

“That’s all you can do,” he says.

The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at kylebrown@igin.com.

Being represented

Evan Evanovich, president of The Landscape Center by Evanovich in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, stays connected with his representatives in Congress to let them know the importance of the H-2B program. The program acts as a cog that helps operate local businesses, and removing it affects multiple other companies even beyond the ones initially using H-2B, he says. While one goal for the reduction of available H-2B visas is to prioritize American labor, he hasn’t been able to find those replacements locally. Instead, he’s moved forward with the crew he already has.

Joe Drake, owner of J.F.D. Landscapes in Cha­grin Falls, Ohio, works to be involved with his congressional representatives as well, and he has done fundraisers for them in the past.

“My congressman knows me personally,” he says. “Every contractor should have that relationship with their congressman, to be able to pick up the phone and talk to their staff and know who you are and be able to help you out.”

He works with a group of contractors who visit representatives on a regular basis to make the case for visas, he says. Keeping that connection provides a legislative aide for issues like H-2B, making certain that someone on staff is always thinking of how to handle the needs of the industry.