Trump’s promise to bring jobs back home hits Michigan where it vacations

A longtime Harbor Springs business owner unexpectedly found himself in the middle of the national immigration and guest-worker debate, to the point he has shut down his business temporarily for the summer season, if not for good.

Gow Litzenburger, 51, owner of Litzenburger Landscape, made his local weekly’s front page recently, shortly after word spread across the northern Michigan resort town.

After continued delays in the U.S. Department of Labor’s backlogged seasonal worker H-2B visa program, he’s not opening for the first time in 31 years. Some 30 of his 60 seasonal employees are Mexican and unable to get the temporary work visa required to work in the U.S.

“I’m totally flattened,” Litzenburger says. “I really had no choice. It has just blown my mind.”

Having mown lawns since childhood, Litzenburger started his business shortly after graduating from Michigan State University’s two-year landscaping program in 1985, and has grown it into one of the area’s leading landscape businesses. His well-kept fleet of green-and-white trucks have traveled through the Up North countryside for decades.

But Litzenburger Landscape, like others across the country, depends on the small U.S. Department of Labor H-2B visa program to survive. Besides landscaping, it is used in the forestry, amusement, tourism and construction industries, and is a key conduit for seasonal businesses to fill jobs they say Americans typically don’t want, reports the Wall Street Journal.

This year Litzenburger hit a wall. The visa process, which normally takes seven days, had grown to past 78 days, with still no permits and beyond his time to effectively start work.

Sympathetic customers have have offered suggestions and advice, including hiring college students. Unfortunately, Litzenburger says students are not available early enough and don’t have the 10 years of experience and knowledge most of his workers had to do the job.

He’s not alone. Some employers on Mackinac Island are now having trouble finding enough workers to staff for the tourist season. Others are not.

The Grand Hotel requires nearly 700 employees to maintain its day-to-day operations during the peak season. The hotel’s president, R. Daniel Musser III, testified before Congress in 2008, when the issue was emerging for his and similar businesses. He asked for improvements in the regulations governing foreign seasonal workers, arguing, like Litzenburger, that they were essential for Grand Hotel staffing through a typical May-to-October season.

But the Grand Hotel was one of the fortunate businesses escaping the problem as it readies itself to open for its 130th summer season.

Musser, like his late father, R.D. Musser Jr., hires some 650 workers seasonally at the hotel, owned and operated by his family for more than 80 years. The process has become a complex issue for him and many others in the resort business. There simply aren’t enough students and locals to fill all the jobs, from maintaining golf courses to staffing the kitchen and marina.

“I feel really bad for Gow,” said Musser, who has been a family friend for years. “It has become more difficult, and with (Donald) Trump and others being so disparaging about the program.... He made a difficult decision, but one also has to sleep at night.

“We (likely) will get all the visas we need this season,” Musser said. “More hoops to jump through and higher costs, but worth the effort.”

“We would much prefer to fill these positions with domestic staff, and more specifically staff from Michigan, but we find that distance from a major metropolitan area and the seasonal nature of the jobs is not attractive,” he said. “Even in the height of the economic downturn, we did not see a greater willingness in applicants being willing to relocate to Mackinac Island for the summer season.”

The H-2B visa is designed to fill temporary labor shortages because of seasonal, peak-load, one-time or intermittent need. The Grand Hotel hires visa holders for food preparation, dishwashing, dining room, cafeteria and bar jobs.

Help Wanted signs and classified advertising are now popping up across northern Michigan, as the snow melts and seasonal operations open for summer. Many last summer had difficulties finding help, forcing them to shorten business operating hours and in some cases, like restaurants, opening only for dinner hours.

Americans just don’t want to do the dirty work required to fuel the U.S. economy, particularly in northern Michigan and other resort communities across the country. The politicians, particularly some of those running for president, don’t get it.

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Sat, 04/02/2016 - 7:02am
Bull! I've known many in Northern Michigan desperate for a job and would love summer work on the island. I've known many who were displaced by H2-B workers at Northern Michigan resorts, restaurants and other seasonal jobs. The unemployment rates in Northern Michigan counties are huge. There are plenty of workers. There are also virtually zero ads for any of these openings. And, if Michigan gets really desperate for low income workers, Michigan can do what some other states have done and employ their prisoners. Kinros is a short bus ride to the island ferries.
Sat, 04/02/2016 - 11:12am
I remember being on Mackinaw Island many years ago talking to a clerk in a candy store who came from Poland for a summer of work. Is it true that Americans don't want to do the dirty work jobs or are the employers just not trying hard enough to find them (and pay them as well)? I once did a real dirty work job shoveling sheep manure from a barn, you get used to the smell and the flies, it was not as bad as it may sound.
Sun, 04/03/2016 - 7:01am
What is not stated here is that he just doesn't want to pay more than what the Mexicans will accept to do the job. And the 10 years experience thing is laughable. Most H1B workers I've seen just do what they are told, whether or not it is the correct way.
Sun, 04/03/2016 - 7:04am
Sorry, meant H2B, not H1B.
Terry N.
Wed, 04/06/2016 - 10:15am
Do you know the man? Probably not. I have known him and his family for 25 years. He hires the same group of men year after year. They are the hardest workers imaginable and have excellent values and morals. They live like a family and work hard, go home and cook a meal together, eat and go to bed so they can get up and do it again the next day. Gow takes care of all of his workers and they loved to work for him and they did have many years of experience to perform in the manner his customers expected. There's no finer of a gentleman than Gow Litzenburger. He treats all of his employees very well; seasonal and otherwise. They work hard because it is very hard work. My first degree was in landscape design and many businesses in the Landscaping field are owned by white people in the Midwest. When I lived in Palm Springs many years ago, the only people doing any landscaping were Mexican. Again, they were very hard working people. I grew up with Mexican people in California and I have been proud to know many of them.
Edith Robbins
Fri, 05/06/2016 - 11:21am
I think you hit the nail on the head, Rich. Back in the 1970's I lived in Big Rapids and it was well known that several of the instructors at Ferris State ran summer businesses on Mackinac Island and hired students to work there. They also were put up in barrack type housing while they lived there for the summer. I think the people complaining may be those who are paying less than minimum wage and you know how the immigrant workers all live together in housing that would be considered substandard for a lot of other workers. Think about the places that are set up for migrant farm laborers. No student or regular citizen would want to live like that and be paid substandard wage to work in hot sun picking fruit or vegetables.
Rick Haglund
Sun, 04/03/2016 - 8:08am
What's the reason for the backlog in the H-2B visa program?
Sun, 04/03/2016 - 8:56am
This is nonsense. These employers believe that if there isn't an unlimited supply of labor at or near the minimum wage then there is a labor shortage. The employers use H2B visa and illegal immigrants to keep wages down. The government should not be in the business of helping businesses drive wages down.
Sun, 04/03/2016 - 12:05pm
In northern Michigan the seasonal work issue is complicated. While many businesses, such as restaurants, merely ramp up to meet the 3-month summer demand and can successfully staff with high school and college students, other businesses such as Mr. Litzenburger's have a longer season for which that kind of staffing isn't possible. And local adult workers either need higher-paying seasonal jobs, (such as construction work) or year-round jobs just to make a decent living for their families. I don't agree with you, Ken, when you say Americans just don't want to do the dirty work. I know lots of Americans who do lots of dirty work. But up north is rural with far fewer workers to draw from, and, especially in high class resort areas like that where Mr. Litzenburger's business is located, with unaffordable housing and commuting costs for those near the bottom of the pay ladder. The real issue is why the U.S. Department of Labor has yet to correct problems with its operation of the H-2B visa program.
Sun, 04/03/2016 - 12:45pm
The issues facing so many employers using low skill domestic employees are lack of work ethic, unreliability (often from basket case family situations), and drug and alcohol issues. This triples up north, I've been there. Obviously you can find a few good employees but finding them in numbers is a big problem. Training programs or a couple bucks more per hour don't change this fact and foreign workers more the most part don't bring these issues with them.
Suz McLaughlin
Sun, 04/03/2016 - 1:03pm
"Americans just don’t want to do the dirty work required to fuel the U.S. economy, particularly in northern Michigan and other resort communities across the country." ...I've got to say, these kinds of blanket statements have me seeing RED! I'm not so sure this author has EVER has to work in these low paying, very seasonal 'jobs' but the first documented issue is how many people work 3 or more of these kinds of jobs desperately trying to make ends meet in my community of Benzie Co. Employers feel justified to pay as little as possible, work people with no consistent schedules and long hours all to the 'benefit' of their seasonal business, usually making sure this employee has no recourse for unemployment benefits or over time pay and forget about any health insurance. This creates huge issues with tricky things like child or other family (ie elders) care situations many, many families deal with on a daily basis. I can think of many excellent seasonal businesses in my community that don't have to go through this painful and expensive recruitment process because they pay people decently (meaning way ABOVE minimum wages), treat them respectfully and APPRECIATE their efforts in creating the kinds of businesses one can be proud of being a part of their successes. We MUST STOP perpetuating this myth that this is a problem of workers not willing to work hard!
Mon, 04/04/2016 - 5:49pm
Sorry the problem is that many have no concept what work is in the first place. You clearly aren't an employer!!!
Tue, 06/19/2018 - 10:51pm

Amen Suz.
Too many of these greedy business owners keep telling lies and bad mouthing hard working Americans to justify poor working conditions and low wages. I'm sick of it. What happened to patriotism. What happened to America first.

Sun, 04/03/2016 - 1:11pm
A good capitalist who understands supply and demand would realize the equilibrium price is higher because of the lower supply of labor. Simply increase your wages and more workers will be able to make the trip north and be able to afford the low standard housing that is available. Funny, when the the capitalist markets disadvantages the lower income it's just the system at work. When it disadvantages the wealthy the government needs to do something.
Mon, 04/04/2016 - 5:46pm
I tend to agree with this. If people in the UP don't want to do their own landscaping, they will either stop (meaning it isn't that important to them and the market never really supported the activity in the first palace) or they'll pay the price to have it done. Tweak services. Charge the price. Pay your workforce.
Jim H
Sun, 04/03/2016 - 5:40pm
Solution: keep raising wages until you hit the sweet spot on the supply. Cost of the service or goods might go up? That's the way it goes.
Sun, 04/03/2016 - 9:31pm
Until now we have been a country that has continually been lifted up by the next generation of hardworking immigrants. That is and has been our strength for decades/centuries. I am not seeing red. I am saddened that our collective memory and understanding as a nation (this day in age) hasn't learned from history. Thank goodness people like the woman seeing red above didn't rule the day when (over the objections of people with similar thoughts) the Irish, German, Polish and other low skill hardworking people who were willing to do almost anything for a better life and future weren't turned away. If we lose this infusion of entrepreneurial immigrant energy, we will lose the foundation of our great nation. That is what is it at stake over the long term. Companies and jobs aren't easy to create. It takes the kind of passionate blood, sweat and tears that, quite frankly, burns in immigrants and immigrant families far more than the typical American household. I am over generalizing but the point is true if you look past the stereotypes. Of course some see "those different people" that some ignorant politician tells them are taking their jobs and living off our social services. That is sad too. I represent many good paying construction companies who care about their workers. They'll pay close to $20 an hour (or more) to a hard working employee with no experience who shows up on time and demonstrates a willingness to learn and do whatever is asked of them. They can' t find them. Survey after survey and discussion after discussion with these business owners convinces me they aren't trying to get rich off the backs of cheap laborers. They ARE willing to pay a premium and can't find folks...and with all the "let's build a wall" BS, previously available immigrant labor isn't there either. So who is going to work? As a republican who has many good friends and family members who disagree with me, I didn't come to this position as a result of some left wing "we've got to take care of the world's less fortunate" mantra. I formed this belief because of an economic reality. We will lose our stature and economic competitiveness if we don't open our doors. Today's Hispanics and Middle Easterners are yesterday's Irish and Poles. We're repeating our history of discrimination, fear and hate to our own detriment. Mr. Litzenberger's situation is one tip of an ever increasing iceberg.
Phil L.
Mon, 04/04/2016 - 11:20am
Maybe it's a tad unreasonable to expect to hire 650 workers for six months at minimum or even slightly-higher-than-minimum wage on a small island in a rural area. Perhaps a business model that requires a landscaper to hire foreign workers at (presumably) cheap wages for half a year isn't sustainable. Mr. Winter didn't provide any data about beginning or median wages, population density, landscaping companies, hotel companies, history, etc. I wouldn't want policy based on two anecdotes in northern Michigan.
Robert Mack
Mon, 04/04/2016 - 11:29am
I feel contempt not sorry for the business owners who "claim" they "cannot find" enough H-2B or H-1 foreign workers who will work for them. No not for what they pay. We have been hearing this excuse for so long, it is disgusting. If they paid a decent going wage, business owner would find American citizens very willing to work. These business owners are just trying to get Congress to pass even more lax immigration measures, to get even more foreign workers from Mexico and Central America. No we need tougher immigration measures, not less. My son's job (Technical Writing) went to India, my Granddaughter went to college for Medical Billing and when she graduated found those jobs too had gone to India, as have so many others. Trump will put a stop to this and bring the jobs back to America, that is why he is so feared by the "establishment". The lobbyist's bribes to Congressmen would end. Pay workers a decent wage and they will come, even American workers. Todd's Services (landscaping) in the Brighton/Howell MI area does not seem to have a problem getting workers. The business has been growing ever since it started some years ago. The Grand Hotel, on Mackinaw Island MI, owned by Robert Musser is staffed by foreigners to save money. That's how Mr Musser was able to buy up more of Mackinaw Island's costly real estate. Rooms there cost $300 to $400 and up and are sold out for 2016. I remember when almost every job was filled with American citizens not foreigners with a guest worker visa, and we had very low real unemployment. Maybe the solution to this problem is simply requiring able bodied people to work before they can receive food stamps and welfare. Work for a living what a concept!
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 10:42am
Robert, I think you may be forgetting that Donald uses many of these foreign workers and is against raising the minimum wage.
Edith Robbins
Fri, 05/06/2016 - 11:38am
I was with you until you started talking about welfare and food stamps. Are you aware that most of the people getting food stamps and "welfare" (housing subsidy, health care, etc.) are senior citizens, children, and WORKING parents? Meaning they either are too old to work, too young to work, or already working at minimum wage jobs but not able to get enough hours to be able to support themselves or their children!
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 10:38am
I keep hearing that these are jobs that Americans won't do. Try paying $15 an hour and see how many step up to help out.
Tue, 05/24/2016 - 11:08am
Exactly right!
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 12:19pm
Other than the food service industry, there may be no other business as reliant on foreign workers than landscape companies, that's pretty obvious.
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 1:44pm
Can someone please tell me what the pay is for people who come here on work visas? What is the cost to the employer and what is the benefit to the employee? Lots of comments are being posted that would have the reader surmise that foreign workers are paid minimum wage or less. I would like the facts, please.
Sun, 04/17/2016 - 1:38am
Facts about the wages? Why, we don't need no stinkin' facts. 15.00 dollars an hour and no benefits. Thats the bottom line. Why, anybody could live on that. Rent for a 2 bedroom at about 500.00 per month, 2.00 gas and 2.00 bread, why we could live like kings.
Edward Bergeron
Tue, 05/03/2016 - 11:57am
My young cousin from Grand Rapids was very excited about his new job on Mackinac Island a few springs back. He was happy to do the hard work, and willing to accept the filthy small room that his employer forced him to rent, which he shared with an assigned drug-addled roommate from Jamaica, plus rats crawling nightly through the walls and occasionally in full view. A few days after he started his new job, an extended spring cold snap visited the island, so he was immediately laid off ("for two weeks, maybe more...")! But the employer "generously" offered that he could continue to pay rent to keep his room with the rats and his ganja-loving roommate (who of course could not afford the temporary return trip to his home country). So yes, those poor employers do want our government to provide them with cheap foreign labor that employers can use & abuse because they're stuck here! It's not because "these are jobs Americans don't want." The rest of us have to pay for those government programs that allow employers cheap foreign labor, so they can make higher profits and our expense. The foreign worker programs should be cut back, or ended completely! Instead of relying on government programs, let the employers compete with each other, improve their working conditions, pay higher wages & benefits, and employ high school and college kids and seniors like the old days. If their costs are higher as a result, the same will be true for their competitors, so the playing field is still level. People who can afford landscaping services and vacations on Mackinac Island probably won't notice and surely won't mind if their costs are a little higher as a result. It's they'll likely get better service, and our country will be stronger because we're once again providing jobs for the people who live here.
Edith Robbins
Fri, 05/06/2016 - 11:40am
Excellent point!
Tue, 05/24/2016 - 11:06am
If they offered decent wages, at or above the minimum wage, I think there would be many applicants for these jobs.