Study Finds H-2B Visa Program Hurts North Dakota Construction Workers, Economy

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Fargo, ND (April 28, 2020) — A new report by Local Jobs North projects that the construction industry’s growing reliance on foreign guest workers will have cost North Dakota nearly 2,500 jobs and $85 million in economic development by the end of 2020, driven by a nearly 30-fold growth in the sector’s use of H-2B visas since 2008.

Outsourced at Our Expense: The High Cost of Construction Industry Reliance On H-2B Guest Worker Visas examines the impact of replacing locals with guest workers, and finds that increased use of H-2B visas has come at a high cost to local construction workers and area economies.

“Local workers can be expected to spend three times more locally than workers hired through the H-2B visa program,” according to Dr. Lucas Franco, who serves as Research Manager for LIUNA Minnesota & North Dakota — -- a union of 12,000 skilled construction laborers across the two states. We estimate that every dollar of local payroll produces $1.37 worth of economic activity, compared to just $0.42 for workers on H-2B visas, so we expect each dollar of H-2B payroll to result in $0.96 in lost economic activity.”

Fargo-Moorhead led the state in reliance on H-2B visas for construction, according to the report, and is expected to reach 1,100 visas certified and $39 million in estimated economic losses by the end of 2020. Western North Dakota and Bismarck have also taken hits, according to the report, with local losses estimated at $23 million and $8 million, respectively.

“The findings of Outsourced at Our Expense are deeply troubling,” according to State Representative Joshua Boschee, who represents Fargo’s 44th District. “There is no reason contractors should hire workers from a thousand miles away, when we have people right here in Fargo looking for work. We should be building a skilled local construction workforce through high school and post-secondary partnerships with established apprenticeship programs, not importing workers."

The report finds no evidence that use of H-2B visas has been fueled by changes in construction workforce supply or demand. Use of H-2B visas by Fargo-Moorhead concrete contractors has grown exponentially and may set new records this year, for example, even as area employment in top concrete occupations is down slightly.

Instead, the author concludes that employers have evidently chosen to prioritize a captive H-2B workforce over efforts to continue recruiting local workers. The report finds that hundreds of North Dakota workers could benefit if employers made local hiring a priority for jobs that could pay $45,000 during a construction season -- twice the average annual income of a hospitality worker.

“You can see why certain employers might prefer guest workers,” said Franco. “An H-2B worker can’t leave for a better-paid job with a competitor. She can’t quit early unless she can afford to pay her own way back home. And he may not be able to speak out against mistreatment without risking his future participation in the program.”


“I’m out of work right now, and I’m worried about providing for my daughter,” said Carl, a Fargo resident and veteran construction laborer. “It is not fair that contractors are allowed to hire from other countries when locals need the jobs. It seems like some companies would rather have an H-2B worker who’s easy to push around than a local worker who spends his paycheck right here in Fargo.”

The loss of jobs and economic activity attributable to use of H-2B visas is likely to grow, according to the report, as North Dakota employers seek to hire a record 377 foreign guest workers for the 2020 construction season. The report suggests that a combination of low oil prices, a COVID-fueled economic slowdown, and growing reliance on H-2B visas could make life difficult for local workers.

“It’s disheartening that we’ve allowed contractors to exploit the Foreign Guest Worker system, when so many North Dakotans are losing jobs and struggling to make ends meet.” says North Dakota’s Building Trades Unions President Jason Ehlert. “Our members are already worried enough about contracting COVID-19 and whether they’ll have a job next month. They shouldn’t have to worry about being replaced by a foreign guest worker.”

The North Dakota Building Trades sent a letter on Tuesday, April 28 to U.S. Senators John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer and Representative Kelly Armstrong asking for Congressional action to end what the organization describes as “misuse” of the program by contractors (read the letter here).

The full report and more information on the H-2B program are available here.