Last week, Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor alleging the agency has failed to enforce immigration law and protect U.S. loggers from illegal Canadian competition along the northern border.
Jackson, a former full-time logger, said the agency’s “continued failure” to enforce federal law “has left many Maine loggers and truckers struggling to find work and earn decent wages,” in a letter sent with the complaint.
Jackson’s criticism comes at a time when Maine’s forest products industry is struggling to overcome two simultaneous challenges: the COVID-19 pandemic, which has depressed demand for forest products globally, and the April explosion at the Pixelle Androscoggin Mill in Jay, which has decimated logging and trucking operations providing raw material to the mill.
At issue for Jackson is the federal H-2A visa program, which allows U.S. companies to hire foreign labor in the agricultural industry. Several Maine logging companies, which cut or haul wood for landowners, have acquired these visas to hire Canadian workers, including Canadian truck drivers.
To get the H-2A visas, companies must demonstrate that they can’t find Americans to fill the jobs, and that hiring foreign labor won’t have an adverse effect on American workers or their wages. But Canadian H-2A visa holders are having an adverse effect on Maine logging truckers, said Jackson, who got his start in politics helping blockade the border against Canadian labor in 1998.
American companies can hire Canadian workers to drive trucks from point to point in the U.S. under H-2A visas, something Jackson said shouldn’t be allowed. There are also B-1 visas, which allow Canadian truckers to make deliveries across the border and back, but not engage in point-to-point deliveries.
Jackson argues that Canadian truckers on H-2A visas are performing both tasks, which is having an adverse effect on Maine truckers trying to find work amid the pandemic, as mills have canceled contracts or reduced deliveries from logging and trucking outfits in response to market conditions.
“The U.S. DOL has continued to allow the use of H2A workers in the Maine woods even though it has depressed wages because these workers are able to haul point-to-point in the U.S. and then haul a return load to Canada,” Jackson wrote.
Jackson has talked to federal immigration, labor and border officials about the issue, and he has almost always been told that, legally speaking, the practice is a “gray area,” he said.
“Not one of them ever says, ‘This is legal,” Jackson said. “It’s either legal, or it’s not.”
Not everyone thinks the issue is unresolved. H-2A visa holders can do both point-to-point U.S. deliveries and cross-border deliveries, Bangor attorney Jon Haddow said.
“If you have an agricultural employer in the woods industry, and they do have a business that requires deliveries to someone in Canada, I would think that would fall within the scope of the visa,” said Haddow.
On July 21, U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, wrote letters to three federal agencies seeking clarification on the issue, noting he shared Jackson’s concerns.
Only U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has formally responded, according to Nick Zeller, an aide to Golden. And while it confirmed that H-2A drivers can conduct point-to-point delivery in the U.S., and B-1 visa holders can cross the border, it didn’t clarify whether point-to-point and cross-border deliveries can be done under a single H-2A visa.
Other industry members don’t understand Jackson’s focus on this issue. Logging contractors are “hanging on by a thread,” due to the pandemic and the Jay mill explosion, said Dana Doran, a lobbyist and executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine. The state’s logging outfits are operating at 40 to 50 percent capacity right now, Doran said, and “none of it has anything to do with Canadian companies or Canadian trucks.”
In total, the forest and logging industry supported an average of about 2,000 Maine jobs in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Aroostook County was home to roughly 600 of those jobs, more than any other county.
Compared with that workforce, the number of H-2A visa workers in the state is relatively small. The federal government granted 39 H-2A visas in Maine to 17 companies in fiscal year 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Only 11 or so of those visa holders are truck drivers working in the logging industry, according to Pat Strauch, executive director and lobbyist for the Maine Forest Products Council, which represents the forest products industry.
“We have a shortage of truckers no matter where they come from,” Strauch said.
In order to be granted an H-2A visa, a company must first advertise the position locally and cannot offer wages less than minimums set by the U.S. Department of Labor.
“If there are American workers that apply, they have to demonstrate why they didn’t hire those American workers, and they have to justify that to the Department of Labor,” Haddow, the attorney, said.
It appears that some companies were gaming the H-2A system a decade ago, however, before Maine strengthened laws prohibiting contractors from using the program to bring Canadian logging equipment over the border for use in the U.S.
In 2009, a year in which the Great Recession kindled longstanding tensions between Canadian and Maine loggers, a state task force looked at the issue of Canadian labor in the logging industry. It found that some contractors didn’t have a physical address in Maine, charged Mainers fees to enter their land and apply for jobs, posted pay rates lower than what they were paying Canadian workers to discourage Maine loggers from applying, and may have ignored job applications from Maine residents.
It also found that companies were using H-2A visas to bring over not just workers from Canada, but workers with their own heavy equipment, which is illegal. In response, Maine strengthened a law that required companies using foreign labor under the H-2A program to prove they had the equipment needed to justify the number of foreign workers they were seeking. In effect, this prevented companies from illegally using the visas to bring heavy equipment over the border.
State and federal authorities took action against several companies for violating the rules, and applications for H-2A visas in Maine plummeted. Companies requested just 91 of those visas in 2010, compared with roughly 600 per year over the previous five years, according to state data. The number has since fallen further.
But while the number of visas has declined, the misuse of them “is always a threat,” Jackson said.
For instance, Jackson argued that some of the American companies applying for and receiving H-2A visas are American in name only.
“What we are seeing along the Maine-Canadian border is the practice of Canadian companies filing for shell corporations in the U.S., finding a building to slap their sign-on, regardless of the condition, and then turning around and hiring H2A Canadian workers,” Jackson wrote.
On the afternoon of Aug. 5, Jackson strode up the steps of a small building in T15 R15 Maine, which sat several hundred feet from the border crossing at Saint-Pamphile, Quebec, with the Materiaux Blanchet sawmill on the other side. There were no trucks or cars parked in the adjoining dirt parking lot. Attached to the front of the building’s weathered siding were signs for three companies: “Transports Regis Inc,” “Trucking GH Inc” and “Les Entreprises Jean-Guy Robichaud et fils inc.”
Corporate documents showed that, of those three, only Trucking GH is still active in the U.S. Trucking GH applied for and received four H-2A visas for log truck drivers in 2020, according to federal records, and U.S. Department of Transportation records show the company has four drivers.
Corporate documents also show the company’s directors, Ghislain and Harold Belanger, both list the building as their address. The phone number for the company listed with the U.S. Department of Labor for Trucking GH is also the number for Transports Regis, a company located across the border in Saint-Pamphile, Quebec.
Jackson knocked on the door. No one answered.
“This is supposed to be a place that you’re supposed to do business, you’re supposed to get work,” Jackson said at the time. “It’s just a scam so that Canadian companies can say that they’re U.S. corporations and start getting [H-2A workers] to come into Maine and take Americans’ jobs. … There ain’t a soul in there.”
But Trucking GH “is a U.S. company,” according to Robert Albert, an interpreter who often works for the Belangers, who said they only speak French. (Although Albert said he often translates for the Belangers, he was speaking for himself in his conversation with the Bangor Daily News as the Belangers were not available.)
The office is often empty because the truckers are out doing their jobs, Albert said. He also said the company had “eight or nine” workers — five or so workers on H-2A visas, the two owners who are Canadians but have visas, and a U.S. worker, despite its status as a U.S. company.
It is legal for H-2A workers to do point-to-point delivery in the U.S., and then bring shipments across the border, he said.
“[Jackson] is against that, but we made sure that we are all legal,” Albert said. “It’s been like this for years. I think Mr. Jackson is making this personal.”
For Jackson, it is personal. As a fifth-generation logger, he’s heard stories about landowners and logging outfits threatening to replace American workers with Canadians his whole life, he said. And he’s been trying to get state and federal officials to take action to protect American workers for his entire political career.
“The U.S. Department of Labor and the Maine Department of Labor do not give a shit about this,” Jackson said. “There’s zero enforcement. There always has been.”