Senate panel blocks new rules on foreign workers

Several Democrats on a Senate panel voted with Republicans to temporarily block new labor-friendly rules protecting seasonal foreign workers who often perform backbreaking labor at low wages.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 19-11 Thursday to block the Obama administration's rules for one year while debating the Department of Labor's budget. Four Democrats, including liberal Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, voted with Republicans to block the rules.

The rules are designed to make it more difficult for businesses like seafood processors to exploit foreign workers and to get more Americans into seasonal jobs.

But business groups say the new requirements, like paying transportation costs and visa fees for imported workers, are too costly. Employers also oppose a requirement to pay workers for three-quarters of the length of a contract, even if weather or other circumstances mean there isn't that much work.

The effort to shelve the rules was led by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who also objected to a new requirement that employers advertise for U.S. workers until 21 days before work begins — and hire the qualified U.S. workers who apply. Shelby said U.S. workers are likely to quit difficult, dirty jobs like shucking oysters, leaving employers without enough time to recruit foreign replacements.

"These rules are grossly misguided and will have a serious adverse impact on businesses across the nation who benefit from the H-2B visa program," Shelby said. "This is another case of out-of-touch Washington bureaucrats sitting behind a desk implementing regulations that are prohibitively expensive and logistically impossible."

Mikulski said the rules are unfair to the crab processors and other seafood companies on Maryland's Eastern Shore that rely on Latino women to pick crabmeat.

"The 21-day rule — my seafood industry needs to know who's coming. It's unfair to the Latino ladies who go by the rules, because they need to know: 'Are they going to come? When are they going to come?'" Mikulski said. "We need to have rules that are workable, whistle-blower protections as well. And most of all, we need a Department of Labor that understands the industry."

Congress already has move to block a portion of the rules that would require far higher wages for workers obtaining U.S. employment under the H-2B visa program.