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September 2018

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Calling All Canadians: Now Hiring in Georgia
Editor’s Note: After publishing, the U.S. Department of Labor unexpectedly rejected the visa applications for Canadian workers described in this article. A more detailed explanation can be found at and in next month's Electrical Worker. An appeal of the decision is underway.

The Plant Vogtle nuclear facility in Georgia needs hundreds of electricians, as well as welders and other tradespeople, in order to meet its construction deadline — and it looks like it's going to take a few good Canadians to make that happen.

"Construction is booming at unprecedented levels," said Fifth District International Representative Gene O'Kelley. "We anticipated this years ago. It took a little longer than expected, but there's no doubt that it's here now."

To meet the demand, Bechtel, the project contractor, has applied for H-2B visas for 350 journeyman wiremen and 150 welders to work on Units 3 and 4 of Plant Vogtle. The visas are given to foreign, non-agricultural workers coming for temporary work, such as a peak load need or on a one-time basis.

The call went out in July across Canada for available members willing to travel south this fall, where they'll get a per diem along with their regular pay. That's a good deal for a lot of reasons, said First District International Representative Paul Dolsen. For an out-of-work member, not only are they getting a $450-per-week attendance bonus, they're being paid in American dollars, which are currently stronger than Canadian dollars.

With major projects winding down in Atlantic Canada and continued unemployment in some western provinces, including around Alberta's oil sands, there are a lot of members in need of work.

"Given some of the pockets of unemployment in our country and the winding down of those major projects, we shouldn't have any issues with getting enough members," Dolsen said.

While powerline technicians are able to cross the border without visas for work, often after disasters like Hurricanes Katrina or Maria, it's a different story for journeyman wiremen. That classification of Canadian worker must apply for a work visa. It's an issue the IBEW has addressed with both countries' governments. Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland has also raised it in the current renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"Our Red Seal journeypersons get the best possible training and can work anywhere in the country with that certification. There's no reason they shouldn't be able to offer their skills in the U.S. when it's needed," said First District Vice President Thomas Reid.

The IBEW is working with fellow trade union United Association, along with Bechtel, to secure the visas. The two unions represent the largest number of in-demand skilled craftspeople.

Prior to getting permission for Canadian members to work at the plant, O'Kelley says the IBEW hosted job fairs in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. They also ran television and radio ads.

Part of the reason Georgia Power, Vogtle's part owner, has had trouble attracting workers is the comparatively low wage rate versus other booming parts of the U.S.

"The wages at Plant Vogtle are lower than they are in other parts of the state. … A lot of these other jobs pay more incentives, so they do get more manpower before Vogtle," Augusta, Ga., Local 1579 Business Manager Will Salters told The Atlanta Journal Constitution.

The Vogtle project has drawn controversy for delays and for going over budget. Units 3 and 4 have been under construction since 2011 and were originally scheduled for completion in 2016 and 2017, with a $14 billion price tag. Based on current estimates, they aren't expected to be done until late 2021 or early 2022, with costs likely to double.

Salters and O'Kelley say many of the delays were due to engineering issues and using subpar materials, which didn't always make it to the site on time.

"The delays never had to do with manpower," Salters said.

The units are the first to be built in the U.S. in decades. While they can be expensive to build, nuclear plants are prized for their zero-emissions energy and reliability, something that's become increasingly important as states scramble to meet emissions standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"That type of stability is vital to the grid," O'Kelley said.

If the delays continue, the public may further sour on the project, which could be detrimental to the future of nuclear power.

"The country is watching these two units," Salters said. "If things go OK, it could lead to more construction, and if so, there will be a lot of IBEW members in both countries to thank for it — and who will be trained for the next one."


Out-of-work Canadian members could get the chance to work on construction of Plant Vogtle, a nuclear station under construction in Georgia, alongside members from Augusta, Ga., Local 1579.