FORT KENT, Maine — A forum for loggers Saturday helped put some very real faces on labor regulations for state and federal policymakers.
About 170 woods workers attended the daylong event where they had the opportunity to tell representatives from state and federal departments of labor just how they felt about regulations covering the use of foreign workers in the Maine woods.
“You have everybody here you need to talk to,” Gov. John Baldacci told a group of the loggers as he arrived at the University of Maine at Fort Kent campus, which hosted the event. “We are all on the same side.”
Baldacci, along with U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, flew in for the opening remarks with a panel that included Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman, Maine Department of Conservation Commissioner Patrick McGowan and Charlene Giles, director of the Chicago processing center for the US Department of La-bor’s office of foreign labor certification.
“We want you working in the Maine woods for fair wages,” Baldacci said in his remarks. “We need to make sure you have a level playing field and we frankly need to make sure the jobs go to you first.”
At issue were the federal H-2A and H-2B labor certification processes which allows employers to hire bonded foreign workers if qualified U.S. workers are not available.
“I know where I stand on the subject, but it’s not for me to push the issue,” Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said. “We want the department [of labor] to know there are people out there with expensive [logging] equipment who are not working.”
Companies playing fast and loose with the H-2 certifications coupled with lack of meaningful enforcement of the laws, Jackson contends, has left Maine woods contractors and their employees idle as their Canadian counterparts find work in the state.
“It’s a U.S. program that allows Canadian companies to come into Maine to cut our wood and bring that wood to their mills,” Jackson said.
Part of the problem, he said, is an ongoing practice of landowners and related companies stating they are Maine-based, when in fact they have no physical presence in the state at all, and are, in fact, based out of Canada.
Jackson said an address check on more than half of the 51 companies or businesses which routinely seek H-2 certification revealed they were using the addresses of a state accountant or bonding agency as their official Maine location.
“As far as I can see these companies are operating illegally in Maine,” Jackson said. “It’s my hope the U.S. Department of Labor will enforce our regulations or allow [the state of Maine] to do so.”
A decade ago and before being elected to the Maine legislature, Jackson was among a group of loggers spearheading a blockade along the Maine-Canada border protesting loss of Maine jobs to Canadian workers.
“Nothing has really changed since then,” Jackson said.
“Troy and I have been talking about this for the last three months and what we could do to help out,” Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said on Saturday. “We really need to look at the bonded labor issue.”
While the issue has been simmering for years, Martin and other officials at the forum say recent downturns in the state’s forest economy have once again brought it to the forefront.
“Working on the border and the [favorable] exchange rate make it good for the Canadians,” Tony Theriault, a former logger, told the panel. “If wages were better for the U.S. workers a lot would go back to the woods, [but] who is going to go work at a logging camp for $12 or $13 an hour?”
According to Baldacci, there are currently more than 450 jobs available in the northern Maine woods — all of which are open first to Maine workers.
Dean Plourde has worked in the Maine woods for 33 years and on Saturday he told the panel he’s never lost a job to a Canadian worker. But, he added, that was only half the story.
“Because of the Canadian labor, over the season they produce a glut of wood at the mills,” he said. That serves to shorten the overall working season for everyone, said Plourde.
At the same time, he noted logging operations along the border operate largely in French often with bonded Canadian family members or longtime friends working on the same crews.
“It’s not a good working situation for an American worker to come in and take one of those jobs,” Plourde said. “I would never apply for one of those jobs that are so far from home, especially if I was not bilingual.”
That is precisely why the bonded workers are needed, according to Bruce Marquis, president of Robinson Lumber, which operates near the Maine-Quebec border.
“Our mills are 83 miles out there and not everyone wants to travel that every week,” Marquis said. “The one year we did not have bonded workers we lost $125,000.”
Contractor Barry Ouellette agreed the presence of the bonded workers impacts the cutting season with too many workers cutting too much wood too fast.
“I believe if that wood was not harvested by those bonded workers we’d all be in there working today,” he said.
Martin said if the bonded workers were cutting so much wood and the resulting glut at the mills meant a shortened season all around, he would favor a regulation limiting the number of bonded workers for a company based on the amount of wood it projected to cut in a season.
Martin also said he is pushing for increased enforcement of laws prohibiting Canadians from bringing their logging machinery into the United States and for revisions to laws governing how much Maine woods workers are paid for use of their own equipment
“We really have a long to-do list to take back with us,” Fortman said following the forum. “Hearing what everyone had to say today really helped flesh out the facts and has given us a greater depth of understanding of what the woods workers are facing.”
“Our role is to ensure if the jobs are out there for U.S. workers, that we do everything in our power to make sure U.S. workers get those jobs,” she said.