In Miami visit, U.S. labor chief warns ‘anti-immigrant’ policies make it harder to find workers

Alie Skowronski/

The head of the U.S. Department of Labor took an indirect swipe at Florida’s tough new immigration law Wednesday, warning in a visit to Miami that “anti-immigrant policies are exacerbating employers’ challenges in finding workers” and exposing existing workers to more risk.

Acting Secretary of Labor Julie A. Su said in an interview with the Miami Herald that Florida’s tight labor market, and its 2.7% unemployment rate, reflects a trend across the nation that she said is a direct result of President Joe Biden’s economic policies that have kept unemployment rates at less than 4% for a year and a half.

“We need all the talent that we have now for the jobs that are available. And so that’s why the Biden administration and the Department of Labor are so focused on opportunity in all communities,” Su said.

But, she added, when government policies make it more difficult for employers to hire and keep migrant workers in an economy where jobs are plentiful and workers are scarce, the results can be damaging to workers and businesses alike.

“Anti-immigrant policies are also anti-worker policies,’’ she said. “If you make workers, especially immigrant workers, afraid to speak up, afraid to report violations, afraid to keep themselves healthy and safe on the job, this can be disastrous.”

Su was in Miami Wednesday attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony in Miami Gardens for a Department of Labor program known as Job Corps that helps young people get vocational training. The program being unveiled was a pre-apprenticeship glazing program for students to learn how to work with glass on construction sites.

Responding to an initiative promoted by Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida lawmakers this spring passed a law that requires private businesses with more than 25 workers to use the federal E-Verify platform to check their employees’ eligibility to work in the U.S.

DeSantis, who is running for the Republican nomination for president to challenge Biden, a Democrat, has made cracking down on illegal immigration a cornerstone of his presidential election campaign.

Starting next July, companies that don’t comply with the E-Verify mandate could be fined $1,000 daily, or lose their operating licenses for repeated violations. The legislation also makes it a felony to transport into the state people who enter the country illegally, and it compels hospitals who take Medicaid to ask a patient’s immigration status.

Employers in several industries, including agriculture, construction, hotels and restaurants, have told the Herald that the state law has worsened already existing labor shortages, as workers have left Florida for other states, or are worried about being arrested or deported if the state enforces the new law.

Florida has 57 available workers for every 100 jobs, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which classifies the state’s worker shortage as “more severe” than in other states.

Su said that “creating an environment in which immigrant workers feel included, safe and protected is a priority for the Department of Labor and as a priority for this administration.”

She didn’t answer whether she would support expanding temporary guest worker programs, as many businesses in Florida are seeking.

For example, the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association traveled to Washington, D.C. this summer to urge lawmakers to push for a new pathways to legal immigration and, in August, more than 30 public officials throughout the state asked Biden in a letter to expand immigration protections for undocumented migrants in the U.S. who have jobs now and are at risk for deportation.

“We want to see a pathway to help these people who’ve paid their taxes, had their social security withheld, become contributing members of our community,’’ said John Horne, CEO of Anna Maria Oyster Bar and chair of the board for the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association in an interview with the Herald last month.

Su, however, said she was focused on ensuring that employers comply with worker protections under the current law.

On Tuesday, the Department of Labor announced a proposed federal rule to strengthen protections for seasonal employees who come through the H-2A visa program for foreign agricultural workers to temporarily work in the United States. It is meant to alleviate work shortages that plague the agricultural industry nationwide.

The intended rule would make pay more predictable, set out specific guidelines for “for cause” firings, and order employers to give the agency copies of labor recruiters agreements, among other measures, according to the agency website.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has pointed to the sharp increase of requested and approved H-2A visas over the last two decades as “one of the clearest indicators of labor scarcity.” Florida had over 32,000 certified H-2A positions in the third quarter of the year, second only to California, according to federal government data.

The new rule recognizes “that we both need lawful pathways for workers to work in this country, but to have robust protections so that when they work, they’re not made more vulnerable by their status,’’ Su said.