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Companies Import Foreign Workers In High Unemployment

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by Ben Hall
Investigative Reporter

A NewsChannel 5 investigation found companies across the state are importing foreign workers at a time when the unemployment rate is near 10 percent.

We spent months reviewing applications Tennessee businesses sent to the federal government as part of a federal visa program called H-2B.

The use of H-2B guest workers has soared nationally, from around 15,000 visas issued in 1997, to an all time high of more than 129,000 issued in 2007. The program was designed to provide temporary workers for small businesses with jobs Americans do not want.

When businesses apply for the right to bring foreign workers into the country, they must prove that no Americans are qualified or interested in the jobs.

Our investigation revealed companies are bending the rules and even lying on federal applications.

Here in Tennessee, business owners told the federal government they could not find people willing to do horse grooming jobs that paid $15.00 an hour, golf course landscaping that paid more than $10.00 an hour and operating carnival rides at more than $7.00 an hour.

"You can't tell me that an employer can't find somebody in this country to do the work anywhere," said union leader Jerry Lee, president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO.

With unemployment near 10 percent in the state, Lee said it's ridiculous to think Tennesseans would walk away from so many jobs.

He thinks many employers now prefer foreign workers because their legal status in this country is tied to their job, making them willing to endure poor conditions.

"They're not going to rock the boat because they know if they get fired or they make the boss mad, they're gone," Lee said.

Under federal law, companies must make every effort to hire American workers before asking permission to bring in foreign workers.

But we found cases where employees were willing to work, but were told they weren't needed after companies received large numbers of foreign workers.

"I couldn't find a job -- I mean, I really couldn't," said 28-year-old Jesse Ott. "The economy was really down, and I thought that was my job."

Ott saw an ad from One Source Landscaping in Mason, Tennessee that paid more than $10 an hour, and he had high hopes.

"I've done landscaping for almost 10-11 years by myself," Ott said.

He took a drug test and was hired, but in an odd twist, One Source told him the job didn't start for another three months. He was so desperate, he agreed.

But he said when he showed up three months later, One Source told him to go home.

"Now you tell me, no, I don't have a job? Something's wrong," Ott said.

Documents obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates show One Source Landscaping told the federal government it hired Ott. But it also claimed it needed foreign workers.

The Department of Labor certified the company for 55 foreign workers. Ott believes when they received those workers, he was no longer needed

"Saying that there's no people that will work when you've got people here willing to work -- it's wrong," Ott said.

A federal review of the H-2B program released this year by the Government Accountability Office highlighted cases in which employers tried to discourage American workers from taking jobs so they could bring in foreign workers.

We found examples right here in Tennessee.

Companies are required to run newspaper ads to prove they've tried to find American workers. But our investigation found it's not unusual to run an ad in October for a job that starts in February.

We found one landscaping company that forced people responding to its ad to do a rigorous strength test that included carrying a 50 pound bag up a ramp.

When people had difficulty, they weren't hired.

That same company brought in 19 foreign workers.

The company that didn't hire Jesse Ott is under new ownership, but is still run by the same managers. It's now called Vanderbilt Landscaping.

Larry Vanderbilt signed paperwork sent to the federal government claiming Ott was hired and claiming that One Source needed 55 foreign workers.

He wouldn't talk to us about this issue, but over the summer he and his brother did an interview about claims the company kept foreign workers in substandard housing and refused to pay overtime.

"We always treat our employees with the upmost (sic) respect," said Joffrey Vanderbilt.

The owners claim that even in this economy they can't find enough Americans willing to work.

"We have American workers that work for us, but at the end of the day it's about who wants to come out and who wants to do the work," Vanderbilt said.

Jesse Ott wanted to do the work. He believes he knows what's really going on.

"I think it's a lie, because I was a local and I am American, and I was willing to work, but they told me no," said Ott.

Email: bhall@newschannel5.com

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