Local landscaping firms are struggling to keep up with their work because their pool of seasonal workers has all but dried up.

Owners typically count on filling low-skill jobs with legal immigrants through the Federal Guest Worker Visa Program, or H-2B. Landscaping companies have used the H-2B program to supplement their seasonal lawn maintenance crews for years.

The program permits employers to hire foreign workers to come temporarily to the United States and perform work on a seasonal basis. It’s used throughout the country not only in the landscape service industry, but also by resorts, carnivals, timber companies, golf courses and many other industries that rely on seasonal labor.

This season, however, has been different. The federal government permitted only a limited number of visas and used a lottery system versus a first-come, first-served system as was used in the past, leaving an unprecedented number of companies without their seasonal workforce. 

KareCondo of Stow manages a portfolio of about 70 properties — or 5,500 doors — throughout northeast Ohio and contracts out for lawn maintenance services. Bruce Cedar, president of the company, recently sent a letter to residents of its properties explaining the situation. He said that about 60 percent of KareCondo’s portfolio of properties has been affected by the shortage of workers.

“... local lawn maintenance companies have recently had to compete for employees from a diminutive pool of inexperienced American workers with unemployment rates being so low. These companies are continually hiring and firing employees from this inexperienced workforce, causing your properties to be services by a barrage of inexperienced crews in training,” the letter reads.

“There is little to nothing anyone can probably do that would affect this season,” Cedar wrote in an email to GateHouse Media Ohio. “My guess would be that the backlash will hopefully cause change in the system for next season, and if not, local landscape companies should be hedging themselves by continually seeking a qualified local workforce. This may also dramatically affect the cost of landscape maintenance going forward, which in turn, would drive up association maintenance fees.

Several Portage County landscapers are bucking this trend, including All County Landscaping and Mulch in Kent, which is co-owned by Maxime Bish.

“It’s just me and my husband that mainly do everything,” she said.

However, she said the labor market is tight, and difficult on business owners, in general.

“I just cannot find workers, period,” she said. “I’m literally turning customers away.”

Although she’s not affected by the migrant worker shortage, Bish said it may be have a trickle down effect in the market.

“If the Mexicans keep getting busted and sent back, these homeowners that expect their landscaping to be there, it’s going to be more expensive for them.”

Part of the problem facing landscapers is that there are very few teens and 20-something young adults who want to do the work, she said.

Jerry Kusar, president of Landscape contractor R.B. Stout Inc. of Akron, said of his more than 100 employees, 40 positions are seasonal. In the past Kusar said he could count on filling 28 to 30 of those seasonal positions with Mexicans through the guest worker visa program. This year, however, Kusar has had to try to fill all of those openings with local hires.

“We’re constantly advertising to fill those positions,” Kusar said. “Five quit, two come in, three more quit. It’s a revolving door. The problem is the job is a seasonal occupation; six to eight months a year … Most people want full-time [year-round] employment.” The work involves a lot of mowing, plus trimming, pruning and mulching, he said. The job does not require highly-skilled workers, but it does call for people who have the ability to perform these tasks.

To qualify for the H-2B applications, companies first have to advertise jobs in local newspapers to give American citizens first crack at openings, Kusar said. “You have to prove you can’t get people” in order to bring in workers from outside the United States, he said.

Ric Haury, owner of Suncrest Gardens in Boston Township, said he normally has 120 employees during the growing season and 70 workers in the winter. He said for 15 years he has been using the guest visa program to “stabilize his workforce” receiving around 40 workers through the visa program. “It allows us to grow our business and keep our American workers employed in managerial and supervisory capacities.”

“These are guys who come to us. We’ve got to know them. All they want to do is work. They’re good people,” Haury said. “They’re here 8 1/2 to 9 months and then they have to go home. Their visa requires it.” He noted they pay all the taxes on their wages and receive no benefits. Haury noted he is not renting out the eight apartments his company normally reserves for the work visa workers.

Haury further shared that he is not buying any new union-made trucks or equipment this season due to reduction in his workforce. “The trickle-out effect of the green industry in northeast Ohio is huge … It’s been a challenge.” Haury said Suncrest is in desperate need of help and he could use 20 to 25 workers.

“There are hundreds companies in the northeast Ohio that use the H-2B program,” said George Hohman, owner of Turfscape in Twinsburg. “… We’ve been using the program for 18 years. Last year we had about 54 employees.” 

Hohman said the H-2B visa program is “super important” to him and other area business owners. He said his company’s starting wage is $13 an hour, and employees typically work 50 to 60 hours a week. Turnover is a problem he said. “Since spring we’ve hired 150 and lost over 50 of them because it’s hard work,” he said. “Last Saturday, we planned to have 40 to 50 work and 15 called off or just didn’t show up.”

Currently, he said, he and his managers are putting in more than 80 hours a week and those employees normally in the field are working 70 to 75 hours a week. Hohman said he has been lobbying congress and senators to do something to remedy the situation, and so far nothing’s been done. “The need to increase the number of visas allowed,” he said.

“I feel so angry right now,” said Joe Chiera, owner of Impact Landscape & Maintenance in Boston Heights. “It’s affected our business. ... I’m all fired up about this. No one wants to hear me. No one cares. It is what it is.” Chiera said he flew one of his managers to Puerto Rico, who in turn hired 15 people willing to come, at Impact’s expense, to Northeast Ohio and work. “They actually show up. They want to work,” Chiera said.

GateHouse Media Ohio reporter Jim Mackinnon and Record-Courier reporter Bob Gaetjens contributed to this story. Reporter Steve Wiandt can be reached at 330-541-9420, swiandt@recordpub.com or @SteveWiandt_RPC.