Forestry industry concerned about new federal wage regulations

Lumber companies are crying foul over new wage regulations.  The federal government wants them to pay legal immigrants or guest workers as much as $20 an hour for labor.  Currently the pay is around $10 in Alabama.  The companies say the new rules could put them out of business.

The timber that makes onto log trucks comes from pine trees planted by companies like Pritchett Forestry Service, of Sweetwater.

"When you're crawling out through a clear cut, through limbs and bushes and briars sometimes, it's not very easy work," Charlie Pritchett, who heads the company.

The company plants timber fields, by hand and by machine, in six states in the South.  Pritchett Forestry and others like it rely on the H-2B program, run by the Labor Department.   It allows them to bring in workers from foreign countries.

Pritchett said his company pays U.S. workers at the same rate as foreign workers.   But he said the program is important, because even though it's easier to hire local help, those workers are hard to retain.

"Last year, we've hired 15 or 20, nobody ever stayed.  They work a day and then realize how grueling this job is, and how demanding it is, and just want to do it."

But filling the gap with foreign workers may get a lot more expensive

This year, the government wants to increase the prevailing wage for those workers to as much as $20 an hour in some counties.  Pritchett says that cost would have to be passed on to landowners

"Eventually this could put us out of business if enough people don't want to plant anymore," Pritchett said.

The Department of Labor said the prevailing wage rule is in place to make sure the hiring of a foreign worker will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers in similar jobs.  The department said the changes are meant to prevent abuse.

The timber industry is already hurting because of the April tornadoes, and the effect it had on supply and prices.  He said the new rules could lead to a devastating domino effect - other timber companies being forced to shut down because of a lack of supply.

"Their wood supply wouldn't be here," said Pritchett.  "And so therefore, they're going to shut down, or move or whatever, and the people that work in it, they're going to have to lay off also."

The timber industry is lobbying Members of Congress to push for a compromise, but there's not much time.  The changes take effect in October.  The planting season begins in November.

Copyright 2011 WSFA 12 News.  All rights reserved.