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SD Tourism Prefers Foreign Labor and Gov’t Favors over Paying Free Market Wages

South Dakota agriculture relies on immigrant workers to bring in the crops, cattle, and milk. Another big South Dakota industry, tourism, relies on foreign labor to cook, clean, and run the till. As Senator Rounds warned last week, some tourism businesses are having trouble recruiting their usual foreign crews for the summer rush:

The expiration of a federal law last September has reduced the number of temporary guest workers allowed into the country, and some South Dakota businesses have been unable to hire their usual crew of foreign seasonal help.

That’s a problem, especially in parts of the Black Hills where tourists arrive by the millions, local residents are counted in the hundreds and the unemployment rate is around 4 percent. Some employers in those areas are scrambling to find other workers and dreading the possibility of being understaffed when the tourist rush begins in May.

“The workers just aren’t here to be had,” said [Mike] Atkinson, whose resort is between Hill City and Keystone [Seth Tupper, “Black Hills Afflicted with Shortage of Foreign Seasonal Workers,” Rapid City Journal, 2017.03.26].

You know, I’ve heard of this thing called the free market, which clears labor shortages by raising wages. If Atkinson wants people to drive out to Palmer Gulch to scrub toilets, all he needs to do is pay folks enough to make that trip worth the scrub.

But apparently that free market is unpalatable to South Dakota businesses, who would rather seek government intervention in the form of exemptions from the H-2B visa caps to preserve the low wages Tupper reports—$9 an hour for hospitality work, $24 an hour for construction jobs.

But cheap Trump politics leads South Dakota businesses into their quandary:

But any attempt to free up more guest-worker visas this year could be fraught with political tension. Some conservatives say guest-worker programs take jobs away from Americans and give them to foreigners who are willing to work for lower wages and few benefits. Some traditionally Democratic interest groups, such as labor unions, have similar reasons for opposing guest-worker programs, and some liberals decry the entire guest-worker system as a form of indentured servitude. Those swirling political winds and a steady stream of anti-immigrant, America-first rhetoric from then-President-elect Donald Trump reportedly combined to doom the attempted renewal of the returning-worker exemption in December [Tupper, 2017.03.26].

If we’re all serious about putting Americans First, our business leaders will have to focus on hiring Americans first. And hiring Americans first means paying them competitive wages.


  1. Dana P 2017-03-27 09:14

    Read this article in the RCJ yesterday, and went from laughing hard to just shaking my head. Yeah, sure, Palmer Gulch and Hill City are somewhat “remote”, but there are employees to be had . No question. But the wages are horrible! Not even close to a living wage. Like you said, Cory, if the wages were “worth the trip”, then they would get many folks applying for those jobs.

    Even in non-remote, Rapid City, Mayor Allender is considering raising entry level pay for two city director positions that have been open for a year. They can’t attract applicants. The wages in West River on way behind, in ALL employment. (hey, didn’t we have this discussion about teachers wages?) But our politicians just deny that and say “low cost of living” as their argument.–412447243.html

    I wonder… these employers that have been using immigrants on the H2-B visas pay employment taxes?

  2. W R Old Guy 2017-03-27 09:45

    A big part of the problem is the fact that these jobs are seasonal, normally May to September. People who are already employed year round even at a lower wage probably will not quit for a temp job.

    Most of these jobs are in the tourism field and the employer will only hire someone that is compatible with working with the public. It’s surprising how many businesses use foreign workers during the season. Wall Drug has along with restaurants such as Golden Corral.

    Rapid City Regional Health uses foreign workers in positions ranging from housekeeping to medical staff.

    Several years ago I got tired of retirement and applied to several motel/hotel properties in Rapid City. I did not get a response from any until mid August when the college students and foreign workers were starting to leave. I was already working in a part time job that I enjoyed and declined the offers.

  3. Rorschach 2017-03-27 10:19

    There are waiting lists of Americans of all ages wanting seasonal jobs at national parks either with the government or with contractors who run hotels, stores and restaurants. You can go to any national park including Badlands, Wind Cave, and Mt. Rushmore National Monument and find people from all over the country working there.

    H2b visa holders are bound to a business like indentured servants and can’t change jobs. That’s the biggest reason west river businesses don’t want to find willing American workers. These foreign workers if they get fired lose their visa status on the very second they are fired – so the employer has them over a barrel.

  4. tom schmitz 2017-03-27 10:40

    For any of you who didn’t see the 60 minutes piece last week on how businesses are abusing the worker visa programs to replace qualified, but more highly paid, Americans it is worth checking out.

  5. Roger Elgersma 2017-03-27 11:33


  6. Roger Cornelius 2017-03-27 11:48

    The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally draws hundred of thousands of bikers each year to Sturgis and the Black Hills for a two week period in August and never seem to be short of temporary or seasonal workers.
    Campground, vendors, bars and other services all pay well above minimum wage and are given longer hours. Many of these worker come from out of state and are professionals that rely on the rally to make a ‘killing’ for a short period of time.
    If Sturgis vendors can pay competitive wages for temporary seasonal workers so can the rest of the tourist industry in the Black Hills.

  7. Nick Nemec 2017-03-27 14:54

    Have these employers ever thought of recruiting locally? Just down the road on the reservations there are many unemployed people. Of course unlike foreign workers since they could quit at anytime without fear of deportation employers might have to pay fairly and pay attention to employee rights.

  8. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-03-27 17:21

    No doubt, Dana! People drive further to work each day to Aberdeen and Sioux Falls and get darn less interesting scenery.

    Someday the 21st century is going to catch up with these 20th-century-wage payers.

    Very important point from Nick about captive workforce, folks who can’t leave to seek other employment. As Ror notes, their visas are tied to their sponsoring employers. If they leave the job, they have to leave the country, right?

  9. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-03-27 17:25

    W R Old Guy, there’s a tricky point in your observation. Tourism may be a great industry in drawing customers and tax dollars, but we want industries to serve the general welfare of the community as well—i.e., provide stable living wages. An industry that imports workers for only a few months and then adds nothing to the economy for the rest of the year is inferior to industries that employ residents of the community year-round.

    Is there any way to plug tourism into economic functions that would keep the same people employed full-time, year-round?

  10. Roger Cornelius 2017-03-27 18:27

    When immigrants are hired by these seasonal employers at a starting wage of $9.00 per hour, who pays for their housing and meals?
    Are these laborers allowed a living allowance or are they on their own to find housing and how can they afford it on the low wages they are paid.
    If employers pay for housing and food it is likely the employer will deduct these expenses from the workers weekly pay thereby leaving to work for the company store.

  11. grudznick 2017-03-27 18:39

    I bet you, Mr. C, that they do deduct the housing from the wages like an automatic payment. But I bet these people buy their own food because they’d want to buy what kind of sandwiches they like to eat.

  12. Don Coyote 2017-03-27 19:06

    @cah: “Very important point from Nick about captive workforce, folks who can’t leave to seek other employment. Nick aren’t their visas tied to their sponsoring employers? If they leave the job, they have to leave the country, right?”

    Not necessarily. There also appears to be a process by which a worker can sign on with a different sponsoring employer. There are also a number of guarantees built into the visa that guarantees full time employment, a 3/4th guarantee by the the employer for failure to complete a work order, payment of prevailing wages, etc.

    The ins and outs of the H-2B visa. Knock yourselves out:

  13. John 2017-03-27 19:53

    These inadequate wage paying Black Hills employers received what they likely voted for — nationalists who motivate foreign workers to stay home. These nuts not only disincentivize foreign workers, they also disincentivize foreign tourists, and foreign undergraduate and graduate students. It’s all lose, lose, lose for the US.

  14. W R Old Guy 2017-03-27 21:36

    Some of the workers are provided by “recruiting” companies. I would think that they could move workers if the situation called for it.

    Some of these positions will never be anything more that seasonal. Keystone, Hill City and Custer all have motels that close through the winter. The shops and restaurants do likewise. All the campgrounds and resorts close unless they are set up for winter recreation. Wall drug scales back to a core operation. The motels in Wall do likewise. Dining and lodging choices in Murdo are very limited during the winter months.

    Businesses that can’t find the workers run the risk of reduced income and of course reduced taxes going to the state.

    Ror, I have found a number of foreign workers in season at Mt. Rushmore from around the world. Last spring the only U.S. citizens on the breakfast shift were the managers. There are lots of seasonal volunteer jobs at federal facilities. I agree that a search on will also yield a lot of seasonal work for the feds. Most have various requirements for employment involving education or experience. Some national park contractors provide housing (normally dormitories) for seasonal employees.

  15. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-03-27 22:43

    Indeed, tourism, like harvest, is unavoidably seasonal. Is there any other work that could be put in big ag and tourism communities that would provide stable employment and economic activity for those seasonal workers?

  16. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-03-28 07:01

    To Coyote’s point, whatever legal protections visa holders have, they are still in a more vulnerable position than citizens to enforce any grievances. Folks scrubbing toilets at Palmer Gulch will pay a couple days’ wages for an hour of good lawyer time, they don’t have a support network in the community, and it is conceivable that it may take longer than the valid period of their visas for a grievance to work its way through the bureaucracy or the courts.

    To Roger’s question, if any foreign seasonal workers get any housing allowance, wouldn’t it be cheaper to just offer a competitive wage to local workers? Of course, a truly remote employer may still have to offer housing on site.

  17. John 2017-03-28 08:24

    Seasonal, transitory — words and concepts with more similarity than differences. Well drilling is also transitory, as is pipeline construction – neither is or creates long term sustainable jobs on site. The point stands – pay a living wage and people will show up to work. We hear excuses that ‘you can’t find workers’ really means ‘I’m too cheap to pay a living wage’ or ‘my management is so bad that the business is able to survive without paying sub-standard wages.’

  18. leslie 2017-03-29 17:21

    what contribution in a positive conversation do these trolls make in their mean spirited posts?

    “Knock yourselves out” wuff wuff

    “I bet these people buy their own food because they’d want to buy what kind of sandwiches they like to eat.” snort

    waste of time

Comments are closed.