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How employers use H-1Bs for hard-to-fill positions

  • COURTESY PIXABAY

    President Trump has called for a “Buy American and Hire American” policy that would tighten the availability of H-1B visas and crack down on what he termed “fraud and abuse.”

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. >> Corporate titans NextEra Energy, Office Depot and Jarden Corp. use the H-1B visa program to hire skilled foreign workers in Palm Beach County. So do Florida Atlantic University, Lynn University, Palm Beach Atlantic University, the Palm Beach County school district and Scripps Florida.

Employers say a shortage of skilled American workers forces them to turn overseas, although even Palm Beach County’s largest employers have no more than a dozen workers on visas. Foreign workers are more common in Silicon Valley, where Apple, Google and other tech companies have pushed for years for more H-1B visas.

However, President Donald Trump suggests that the work permits are abused by employers. Trump has called for a “Buy American and Hire American” policy that would tighten the availability of H-1B visas and crack down on what he termed “fraud and abuse.”

H-1B visas “should include only the most skilled and highest-paid applicants and should never, ever be used to replace American workers,” Trump said in a speech last month.

Trump’s policy pronouncement comes with a complicated backstory. He didn’t mention that Trump Model Management has used H-1B visas — best known as a way to bring engineers and programmers into the country — to import foreign models.

Palm Beach County employers who use H-1B visas wouldn’t comment on the program. But immigration attorney Jeff Devore of Palm Beach Gardens said he sees little evidence of companies misusing H-1B visas.

Eligible workers must have college degrees or specific skills, Devore said. What’s more, hiring just one worker through the program typically involves thousands of dollars in application fees and legal costs, so employers don’t take the process lightly.

“It’s very onerous,” Devore said. “The reality is that no employer is going to want to do this unless they can’t find an American to do the job.”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Palm Beach County employers won permission for 1,648 H-1B visas in 2016. The county’s official labor force totaled 728,235 workers as of March.

The highest-paid H-1B visa worker in Palm Beach County is the $300,000-a-year chief executive of the nonprofit Johnson Scholarship Foundation in West Palm Beach. The federal database of visas doesn’t name names, but the head of the foundation is Malcolm Macleod, a native of Nova Scotia. The foundation didn’t respond to a request for comment.

No. 2 on the pay list is the chief operating officer of Max Planck Florida, at $238,125. That position is held by Matthias Haury, a European scientist who joined the Jupiter lab in 2013.

Most of the H-1B visas are granted to workers with technical bona fides, executive experience, foreign language acumen or health-care skills that Florida employers find in short supply. But there are a few head-scratchers. Among FAU’s 14 H-1B visas, for instance, are work permits for a $60,000 assistant professor of English language and a $43,460 instructor of communications. The school didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Palm Beach County’s most active users of H-1B visas are companies you’ve probably never heard of. The largest by far is MakeUrCareer LLC, which has H-1B visas for 215 programmers and software engineers based at its downtown Lake Worth address.

Federal records show the workers are located in Lake Worth, but MakeUrCareer’s address is a former surf shop that has been turned into office suites, and the company’s phone number is in the Seattle area.

Naztec International of West Palm Beach has H-1B visas for 84 workers in Palm Beach County, mostly systems engineers, software developers and programmers making $30 an hour.

Ultimate Care Inc. of Delray Beach has H-1B visas for 30 workers in Palm Beach County, mostly nurses and physical therapists making $24 to $28 an hour.

Among well-known employers, Office Depot is the most active user of visas. The retailer has 18 H-1B visa workers at its Boca Raton headquarters, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. They’re mostly tech positions paying $52,000 to $154,000 a year.

Trump, of course, has been an avid employer of foreign workers through the H-2B visa program, which allows employers to bring in low-wage workers for seasonal work.

Last year, Trump won permission to hire 64 workers at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, including 19 cooks at $12.74 an hour, 30 waiters and waitresses at $11.13 an hour and 15 housekeepers at $10.17 an hour. Their visas expire May 31.

Meanwhile, the H-1B visa program issues permits for fashion models, and Trump Model Management has used the program to fill its stable.

One visa holder, Jamaican model Alexia Palmer, sued Trump Model Management in 2014, saying she was snookered by the New York agency. Palmer said she moved to New York from Jamaica after Trump Model Management arranged an H-1B visa for her and promised pay of $75,000 a year.

Instead, Palmer says in her suit, “After the deduction of all agency fees, expenses, and allowance, the plaintiff received a check in the amount of $3,880.75 for all the work she did from 2011 to 2013.”

“The complaint is bogus and completely frivolous,” Trump attorney Alan Garten told the New York Daily News in 2014.

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