When Miller Spectacular Shows went into business generations ago, it relied on a steady stream of American workers to keep its carnival rides spinning.
But these days, with the number of available U.S. workers shrinking, the Greenbrier-based company is increasingly relying on foreign labor.
Owner Freddy Miller sought dozens of guest-worker visas this year, but the supply ran out before his paperwork had been processed. He welcomed the May 6 announcement that President Donald Trump's administration will issue an additional 30,000 passes this fiscal year.
Sixty-six thousand had already been granted.
"I have been struggling all year long to have enough employees out there to be able to do the job," he said.
Many of his competitors are in the same boat, he added.
Mexican workers are eager for the jobs but can't cross the Southern border, he said. Job applications from U.S. citizens are scarce.
Critics of the H-2B visa program, including U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, say it is unnecessary.
"I think American jobs should go to American workers first," the Republican from Dardanelle said.
Full employment still isn't a reality, Cotton noted.
"We still have 50,000 Arkansans who are unemployed. ... We still have a lot of Americans who are looking for work or need to be looking for work," he said. "I think our immigration policy should serve the needs of those Americans first."
Miller said he's happy to hire his fellow countrymen if their work ethic is strong and their names don't appear on a sex offender registry.
"I want American labor, but I have to have quality American labor," he said.
These days, job-seekers often fail to impress, he said.
"They've either got terrible backgrounds and they're not dependable, or they have drug issues or drinking issues," he said.
Many of the U.S.-born workers he's been able to hire are unreliable, he said.
"In the last six weeks, I have lost 11 employees," he said.
All of those vacancies lead to idle rides. It takes workers to keep all of that equipment going -- Pharaoh's Fury and the Thunder Bolt, the Wipeout and the X-Scream.
The U.S. unemployment rate last month dipped to 3.6 percent -- its lowest level since 1969.
"The ones that are unemployed right now are the people that don't want a job. They want to be able to reach out for a free check from Uncle Sam and not have to do any work," Miller said.
"If the American workforce was there, nobody would be reaching out for foreign workers. But we don't have the workforce here, so we have no choice but to reach out that direction," he said.
Miller isn't the only one in his industry who failed to get H2-B visas this year, he said.
With summer -- and county fair season -- approaching, a lack of employees could spell trouble for many carnival operators, he said.
Some American businesses flout U.S. immigration laws, hiring illegal migrants and paying them under the table.
"I'm not going to be that guy. If I'm going to have [foreign workers], my guys are going to be 100 percent legal," Miller said.
With unemployment so low, U.S. businesses are using guest-worker programs to fill empty slots.
The largest of these programs is for the H-2A visa, which enabled 196,409 foreigners to take on seasonal agricultural jobs in fiscal 2018.
The second-largest is the H-1B visa, which goes to highly skilled workers and can last up to three years. In fiscal 2018, the U.S. government issued 179,660 such visas, according to the U.S. State Department.
The H-2B visas, which go to unskilled laborers, went to 83,774 workers that year.
Gregg Curtis, owner of the Good Earth Garden Center in Little Rock, said his business has benefited from the program.
While perhaps best known for its nursery on Cantrell Road, Good Earth is also in the landscaping business, so it needs workers who can lay sod and help install sprinkler systems.
Like Miller, Curtis seeks American applicants.
"We try to hire local. We run ads every year. We do pick up a few good people every year," but not enough to keep the business going at full capacity, he said.
So he turns to temporary workers from Mexico.
With their help, Good Earth creates waterfalls, fish ponds and outdoor fire pits.
"We bring guys on the H-2B program, 35 [of them], back and forth every year. Without that, it would be almost impossible to get all the work done that we need to get done," he said.
The Good Earth's landscape workers travel by bus from the Yucatan Peninsula to Arkansas each spring. They return in the fall.
They work hard, and they're reliable even when summer is at its worst, Curtis said.
"That work's not cut out for everybody," he said. "It's hot and hard, and these guys are good as gold. They love to work. We wouldn't be here without them. I'll tell you that."
Often, workers return year after year.
In fiscal 2016, the federal government approved H-2B applications for 2,078 workers in Arkansas, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Foreign Labor Certification.
Overall, 1,212 of those slots were for forest and conservation workers, who were offered average wages of $12.06 an hour. Another 568 went to landscaping and groundskeeping workers, with average hourly wages of $10.78.
Tree trimmers and pruners were next (76 positions), followed by amusement and recreation attendants (62 slots.)
While they're here, the workers buy U.S. products and pay U.S. taxes, helping American businesses.
"Them being here means millions of dollars to our state. Millions," Curtis said.
While Good Earth has been around for decades, Apex Row LLC in Morrilton is a relatively new endeavor.
For the past two years, the company has successfully employed guest workers from Mexico.
Sixty-eight made the journey this year.
The foreigners plant trees and spray weeds in Arkansas.
"They're excellent. They have the best work ethic of anybody, any people, I've ever worked with," said company President Daren Mitchell.
"They know their job. They come in and do their job. There's no fussing," he said.
Apex Row seeks to hire Americans and runs help-wanted ads.
"Anybody who comes up looking for a job, when we advertise, we'll put them to work. We have very few that show up," he added.
It's hard to find Americans to do the work, in part, because it's seasonal, in part because it's grueling labor.
"There's not too many college kids out there that want to put on a 30-pound backpack and walk in 100-degree weather down a right of way 10 hours a day," Mitchell said. "These guys are more than happy to do it."
In addition to being reliable, the foreign workers also are extremely polite, he said.
"There's never any back talk. I mean, they're some of the most respectful, appreciative guys that I've worked with," he said.
Guest workers play a pivotal role at Apex Row, enabling its American employees to succeed, Mitchell said.
"[We] wouldn't, none of us, have a job without these guys," he said.
A Section on 05/13/2019
Print Headline: State employers say scarcity of jobless Americans raises need for more guest workers