A South Dakota construction company has come under fire for its reliance on foreign workers for a grain elevator expansion project in southwest Minnesota.
At a Thursday news conference, the Mankato Building and Construction Trades Council expressed disappointment that Meadowland Farm Co-op chose to hire Genuine Builders Inc. for the expansion. The group said the company has a record of exploiting a federal visa program for temporary foreign employees instead of hiring local workers.
“You don’t need to bring in these foreign workers,” Nate O’Reilly, a business agent for Ironworkers Local 512 in St. Paul, said outside the co-op’s offices in Lamberton, Minn. “We got workers right here in Minnesota ready and willing to go to work for you. Give us a call anytime.”
Genuine Builders was selected to place concrete for a new 2.8 million-bushel storage facility in Walnut Grove, Minn. The 25 workers Genuine Builders selected for the project are all from overseas as part of the federal H-2B programs that allows foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary nonagricultural jobs.
To qualify for the H-2B classification, a company must show that there are not enough U.S. workers who are available to do the work.
The council, which represents union construction workers across southwest Minnesota, said in a letter to co-op management that there were plenty of local workers who would have liked to fill the positions.
“We are not opposed to guest worker programs, such as the program for agricultural workers, that meet a legitimate need,” wrote council President Stacey Karels. “But that need does not exist in Minnesota’s construction industry, which has always been able to find locals who are ready, willing and able to work. We have hundreds of members who would have been happy to help build your projects.”
Genuine Builders said it spent about six months recruiting for local workers with the help of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) and did not receive any completed applications.
DEED has said in a recent analysis that it is becoming harder to fill open positions in the construction industry.
“Basically, we just don’t have the sufficient workforce for all the work and growth that we are doing in the Midwest,” John Bedell, compliance officer for Genuine Builders, said.
The Mankato Building and Construction Trades Council said Genuine Builders has a history of overusing foreign workers. In fiscal year 2016, Genuine Builders had more than 1,000 positions certified for the H-2B program, the most of any employer in the country at the time.
The Meadowland project is one of several in Minnesota that Genuine Builders has requested for H-2B certification. Since 2013, the company has requested more than 250 workers for Minnesota sites, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor.
In 2013, Genuine Builders was required to pay more than $180,000 for several violations of labor rules and H-2B requirements including not paying required wage rates and overtime and other penalties, according to documents obtained by the council.