Editor’s Note: This story is a reversal of our “North of 49 - Calling All Canadians: Now Hiring in Georgia” story from September 2018’s Electrical Worker. The U.S. Labor Department’s decision came after September’s issue went to print. We regret the overlap.

Despite a well-documented labor shortage in the midst of a construction boom, the U.S. Department of Labor shockingly rejected an application for Canadian members to work on construction of the Plant Vogtle nuclear station in Georgia.

Approximately 1,400 Canadian members responded to the call to work on construction of Plant Vogtle, a nuclear station in Georgia, alongside Augusta, Ga., Local 1579 members. But the Department of Labor denied the visa application.
Photo Credit: Georgia Power Company

“There are more construction jobs than there are workers to fill them in the U.S., and more workers – trained to the do work – who need a job in Canada,” said First District Vice President Thomas Reid. “This should have been an easy OK.”

Bechtel, Vogtle’s project contractor, applied for H-2B visas in July for 350 journeyman wiremen and 150 welders to work on Units 3 and 4 of the nuclear plant. 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.

With help from the IBEW, the company has made numerous attempts recruit to American workers, said Fifth District International Representative Gene O’Kelley. They held job fairs in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina; ran ads on television and radio and worked with the building trades. They even extended their efforts to Puerto Rico. But they still came up short.

“There’s no one to get,” O’Kelley said. “Union or nonunion, there just aren’t enough people.”

The Labor Department, however, took a different view. In its remarkably short-sighted decision, it cited two main reasons for denying the visas. One was that it didn’t consider construction work to be temporary.

“Nothing in construction is permanent,” O’Kelley said. “You start working yourself out of a job on the first day.”

The second reason argued that the Canadian members are over-qualified, having completed a five-year apprenticeship. According the department, only two years is needed to work on a facility like a nuclear power plant.

“We do a five-year apprenticeship too,” said Will Salters, Augusta, Ga., Local 1579 business manager who has members working at Vogtle. “I’m not sure what they’re reasoning is there. If anything, isn’t that better?”

Safety is paramount on any construction project, particularly when building a nuclear station. Two years isn’t enough time to adequately train a person for that kind of work, said Salters.

“It’s not based in reality,” he said. “You’d have unqualified workers doing sub-standard work.”

O’Kelley said the IBEW and United Association, the other union involved in the application process, both supplied extensive documentation on their apprenticeship programs, which makes it even harder to understand why anyone would believe that two years is sufficient.

“We’re not talking about electricians that wire houses,” O’Kelley said. “We’re talking about heavy industrial experience. Two years isn’t going to get you far. You don’t even know how to read a blueprint yet.”

While powerline technicians are able to cross the border without visas for work, it’s different for journeymen wireman. That classification of 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.

Bechtel is appealing the decision, though there’s no guarantee the visas will still be available once the process is over, which can take five to six months, said O’Kelley. Approximately 1,400 Canadians applied.

“The rug has been pulled out from under them,” Reid said. “And for no good reason. There’s a manpower problem in the U.S. and we have 1,400 solutions. To turn that down simply doesn’t make sense. Frankly, it’s difficult not to see politics in this.”