Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Foreign Workers Hired For Multiple Stimulus-Funded Projects

Gosh- didn't see this coming as far back as 2009 or anything.

Companies that had received funding as part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act are said to have hired foreign workers for their projects, according to auditors, labor unions and local press.

In July 2010, LG Chem- a subsidiary of South Korean-based LG Electronics- broke ground on a new plant that manufactured electric car batteries in a ceremony attended by President Obama.

However, Unions in Western Michigan are now saying that the plant is being built with labor from South Korea- although LG Chem initially denied the reports.

LG Chem and another company- Dow Kokam- told CBS news that the foreign workers were 'legal and temporary' and have highly specialized expertise with the equipment being involved. Dow Kokam also used stimulus funds to build a battery plant near Midland, MI. LG Chem received nearly $151 million in stimulus funds to build the Holldand plant while Dow Kokam's Midland plant received a $161 million grant from the Department of Energy as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Local plumbers, pipefitters and millwright unions in Michigan are saying that even if temporary, most of the positions going to the foreign workers could easily be filled by local labor. Currently, Michigan's unemployment rate is around 8.8%- higher than the national average but the lowest the Wolverine State's jobless rate has been in recent years.

Over in Oregon, it was disclosed in late 2011 that at least $7 million went to contractors that ended up exploiting legal loopholes to hire foreign workers for a stimulus-funded forestry project. The contractors said they could not find enough local labor in central Oregon, although one state Senator disputes that.
That came as a surprise to local officials, who said they often got hundreds of responses to every job opening.

"This is a timber area and we hadn't been cutting trees for years," said state Sen. Chris Telfer, R-Bend. "It really ticked off a lot of people here."

In a report on the investigation this week, the Department of Labor's Inspector General found that contractors who brought in foreign workers violated no laws or regulations, but used legal loopholes to hire foreign workers.

While legal, the hiring practices appear to violate the spirit and purpose of the $840 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as the stimulus, which was designed to create jobs that would jumpstart the country out of recession.

The federal investigation looked at 14 contracts to clear federal forests in central Oregon. The contracts were controlled by four Oregon companies: Medford Cutting Edge Forestry, Summitt Forestry, Ponderosa Reforestations, and G.E. Forestry. All hired foreign workers, according to the report, though they didn't all handle hiring in the same way.

The contractors applied for H-2B visas allowing them to hire workers for seasonal jobs, according to the report. In order to get clearance, contractors must prove the jobs can't be filled with local residents and that pay won't dilute local prevailing wages.

But there is a loophole. Under federal rules, notice of the job openings must be made where the job "originates." And while the bulk of the work took place in Oregon, smaller jobs originated in other states.

"Employers were not required to recruit U.S. workers in Oregon, and we were provided no evidence that they did," federal investigators said. "Workers in Oregon were likely unaware that these job opportunities were available."

In fact, although 146 U.S. workers were contacted for possible employment, investigators found that none was hired.

Contractors used another regulation to dampen response from Oregon residents, the report said. The visa regulations allowed the contractors to do all their hiring four months before work started. That made unemployed workers who needed jobs immediately reluctant to commit to temporary jobs four months later.

Despite the barriers, 29 U.S. workers learned of the jobs and asked about employment. The report did not say if they were from Oregon.
The reports from the Oregon newspaper- the Bend Bulletein- did not mention the nationality of the foreign workers. The comapnies also reportedly advertised the job openings with state employment agencies in Idaho, Arizona, California and Wyoming but not with the state of Oregnon's Employment Department.

The findings come about two years after Congress learned that funds for 'green energy' projects from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were going overseas to purchase solar panels and wind turbine components that were manufactured in China and other Asian countries.

[Hat Tip- Weasel Zippers; The Bend Bulletin]

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