Growing Arizona Businesses Rely On H-2B Visas As Labor Needs Increase

By Casey Kuhn
Published: Tuesday, August 22, 2017 - 8:41am
Updated: Monday, August 28, 2017 - 1:46pm

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(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Guatemalan workers on H-2B visas help move plants at a Phoenix nursery.

The Phoenix economy is recovering, and more buildings are going up. Local nurseries are growing to meet their landscaping needs too, but have trouble getting labor to keep up with the demand. The federal government's response is to bring more temporary visa workers for companies that can't find Americans willing to do the work.

Beneath the scorching sun, Guatemalan workers move containers of small green sprouts from a flatbed to the ground under a long shade at a busy nursery north of Phoenix.

It's repetitive, boring and hot. The nursery workers are wearing long shirts, pants and a hat to keep their skin protected.

This work goes on all day around the rows of cactus and flowering oleanders. They're paid hourly, starting at $10 an hour and up to $20. The nursery can't find American workers willing to take the job.

"We've grown from a two-person operation to about 120, or 130 employees," said Bill Cox, owner of Arizona Wholesale Nursery.

Cox started Arizona Wholesale Nursery 30 years ago and knows how hard the work can be because he's done it all.

"They're out there shifting plants from one size to the other, filling containers with mulch. There's weeding to do, there's pruning," Cox said. "We load trucks, we unload trucks."

It's work so undesirable, Cox said locals aren't willing to do it. So he turned to the H-2B visa program four years ago to start growing his business.

"Without it we literally could not have grown," Cox said. "In the last few years, had we not had this extra help, we would have had to close portions of our business. We would never have been able to handle the amount of traffic we have coming in without it."

H-2B visas are for immigrant workers who come to temporarily work in industries that have trouble recruiting American labor. This year, Cox received 59 H-2B workers, and paid $50,000 to get them here.

About 3,500 H-2B visas were approved for Arizona businesses so far this year. Almost half went to construction and landscaping. Nurseries here nabbed more than 400 H-2B visas. Nationwide, there's 66,000 visas available.

"It's a fair program, there's not enough visas, but it is a fair program," said Jan Thurgood, owner of Corporate and Employee Services.

Corporate and Employee services is a company that contracts with businesses like Arizona Wholesale to do the H-2B visa paperwork.

"The American worker has a better than average chance if they want to go to work and that's a big if," Thurgood said.

To say there are a lot of steps in the H-2B program is an understatement, Thurgood said.

He said there aren't enough visas to meet demand, which has gone up due to a rising economy and a push for legal foreign workers.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security raised the cap by 15,000 visas.

"It hasn't helped the majority of companies and for some of them, it's been too late. They've had to either close parts of their operation or downsize," Thurgood said.

(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Ryan and Jessica Cox began Cox Cactus Nursery six years ago.

Up near Bill Cox's nursery, a worker prunes small bushes at a nursery called Cox Cactus Farm, which was started by his son, Ryan Cox.

For Ryan Cox and his wife Jessica, the fastest way to grow their young business is to bring in more workers to move more saguaros. 

"We place ads for labor in three different local publications," Jessica Cox, sales manager, said. "We also do Craigslist, we put it on Facebook, we pretty much tell anybody that will listen we're looking for labor."

But they can't get the local workers they need at $12 an hour. Ryan Cox said he fields up to 50 phone calls a week of people interested and maybe one or two show up. He said most quit within the day. One lasted 20 minutes. So, they tried to get five H-2B visas last year.

"They are willing to do the work," Jessica Cox said. "They stay, they're grateful to be here and working, and that's what we wanted, that's what we needed."

It's still not an easy procedure. They've been approved, but the workers still haven't come. The Cox's were supposed to get them from March to October.

"We've been looking forward to it since I think about October last year. We just have a shred of hope left that we're still going to get them this year," Jessica Cox said.

If that happens, they can grow their business to fit the needs of their customers. But for now, the local nursery will have to wait and see if those extra visas will be any help at all this year.

(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Workers prune plants at Cox Cactus Nursery in Phoenix.
(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Arizona Wholesale Nursery says the trend of xeriscaping has increased demand for cactus.
(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Nursery work has become so undesirable, owners say they turn to outside labor.

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