For decades, the businesses that ensure the sustainability and reforestation of our country’s forests have relied on the H-2B Guestworker program to keep their doors open. However, the viability of these businesses is currently in question as the program’s Returning Worker Exemption is set to expire at the end of this month. In order for businesses operating in the wood supply chain to meet demand, employ workers, and grow their operations, it is imperative that Congress renew the returning worker exemption in the Continuing Resolution and FY 2017 funding.

For the last several years, forestry businesses have been faced with much uncertainty, nowhere more so than with their labor force. Even during times of high unemployment, as we have seen most recently, reforestation work is unattractive to U.S. workers. This is in part due to the seasonal nature of the work, as well as to its itinerant nature. Such conditions do not appeal to U.S. workers, but they are acceptable to individuals from Central America and Mexico, many of whom repeatedly return to participate in the program.

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U.S. timberland is continuously reforested, supporting year-round, family-wage jobs in nursery management, field forestry, timber harvest, and forest products manufacturing, as well as supporting our country’s ten million private timberland owners. The forest industry is our country’s seventh largest industrial sector, and one that, unlike so much manufacturing, has resisted being “off-shored.”

Weyerhaeuser relies on H-2B labor to help plant approximately 100 million seedlings annually in the United States. This allows the company to continue providing sustainable timber for habitat, recreation, and the mills and manufacturers that depend on steady, stable timber supplies.

The narrative driven by NumbersUSA that the H-2B Guestworker program displaces U.S. workers is incorrect. Employers that use the H-2B program are required to advertise the jobs to U.S. workers and hire those who meet the skill set. Oftentimes, those Americans hired work only a few weeks before the itinerant nature of the job leads them to quit. By hiring laborers through the H-2B program, the American economy is stimulated and jobs created. So much so that for every H-2B worker hired, 4.6 native jobs are created, enabling forestry businesses to remain competitive and meet marketplace demand.

Renewing the Returning Worker Exemption is key to removing several administrative obstructions and providing much needed certainty to the industry. It is important for Congress to carry these improvements forward in FY 2017 Appropriations legislation—and in the Continuing Resolution currently being negotiated.

The Returning Worker Exemption enables legal, and temporary, H-2B Guestworkers who have entered under the program in any of the previous three years to enter again in the current year without being restricted by the 66,000-worker “cap.”

The provision successfully reduced backlog and stress at the Department of Homeland Security, as many of the returning workers were known and not deemed a risk by the Department. Having been vetted already, DHS more easily processed the workers and freed up their limited resources to focus on other priorities, such as border security and vetting those who have entered the country illegally.

The Returning Worker Exemption also provides tremendous value to U.S. employers, who will already know the skills and dependability of these returning H-2B workers.

In 2016, fears expressed by some that the Returning Worker Exemption would open floodgates to two or three times the 66,000-worker cap proved unfounded. This year, the number of H-2B workers increased only incrementally, reflecting market demand—and undeniably supporting U.S. job growth and economic expansion.

It is important that, in negotiating the CR, Congress provide our economy and businesses that rely on this program with the certainty and flexibility they need by renewing the H-2B Returning Worker Exemption.

Paul Davis is the Vice President, Southern Timberlands for Weyerhaeuser Company. Bill Johnson Jr. is Chairman of the Forest Resources Association and President of Johnson Timber. 


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.