With labor topping the list of concerns in the industry for several years running, immigration and the visiting worker program are also coming to the forefront of worries for contractors.
Immigration and customs enforcement arrests increased overall by 30 percent last year compared to 2016, with a total of 143,470 arrests, according to the last fiscal year’s ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Report. And just last month, the U.S. Department of Labor launched an initiative to educate and investigate businesses using the H-2B program.
With the increased scrutiny, it can be nerve-wracking for those who rely on the H-2B program and temporary workers.
“I think it’s fair to say that employers are pretty frustrated,” says Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of advocacy and research at AmericanHort. “The employers who are trying to use these programs feel they’re doing everything that the law allows them to do to ensure that they have a legal workforce and yet the government is making it harder, not easier, to do that.”
And 50 percent of the H-2B visas allocated each year are used by the landscape industry, Regelbrugge says, noting that’s only 5 percent of all landscape industry employment.
H-2B or not to be?
According to Lawn & Landscape’s State of the Industry research, 76 percent of contractors haven’t used the H-2B program at all in the past three years. Five percent have increased their use in the past three years and only 1 percent is using it less.
Those who use it generally agree that it’s a tough system to navigate, and an expensive one, too.
“It’s not an ideal situation but it seems like there’s no other option,” says Michael Sommers, owner of Sunset Lawn and Landscape in Texas, of the H-2B program. Sommers says he’s tried everything from advertising early, raising wages, offering health care and giving referral incentives, but he still can’t find enough workers.
Sommers says demand is high enough that he could grow his business if he could find reliable domestic workers, but he doesn’t want to hurt his reputation by taking on work he can’t complete.
“I got burned doing that last year,” he says. “I’d hire someone and then after a week or so, they’d just disappear and I’d never hear from them again. It’s embarrassing to have to call a customer and let them know I’ll be late that week to mow their lawn or put down fertilizer because I just don’t have the guys.”
His other option was to go out and try to make up the work himself, but between running three crews of two, handling the back-office work and caring for a new baby at home, he was getting burned out.
Both Sommers and Brett Jackson, owner of Jackson’s Lawn Care outside of Miami, Florida, say they’re staying away from an illegal workforce, even though they suspect that others around them are doing it.
“I see them out there, picking up guys at Home Depot or just grabbing some guys off the street for the day,” Jackson says. “I’m spending my time trying to make sure the guys I can find are actually legal. I don’t know what you’d do if ICE showed up and half of your crews don’t even have their paperwork. It’s not worth getting shut down over.”
While Sommers is navigating the H-2B program as best he can, Jackson has opted out. He says the expense, plus the time and effort, isn’t worth it.
“I hear people complain about it all the time, and I’ve looked into it,” he says. “It just isn’t worth all the work, especially for something that’s not a guaranteed fix.”
He instead chooses to focus on hiring U.S. citizens and keeping the employees he has for now.
Increasing scrutiny, audits and raids can put a contractor on edge when it comes to hiring. To make sure you’re staying legal, Regelbrugge recommends starting by making sure your I-9 process is being implemented properly. You have to walk the line between being too lenient and too zealous, he says.
“On the one hand, you must be diligently and consistently applying the requirements of the law and on the other hand, if you are being overly aggressive in that process, you might face claims of discrimination in your hiring practices so you can do too much,” he says.
Once that’s set, it’s time to look at what he calls “what if” components.
Get your legal defenses lined up in the event of a audit or a raid. And, in case something does go wrong, think about what you’ll do to fill in for missing workers. “Have you identified potential labor contractor resources or temporary help resources?” he says. “There’s no silver bullet, but how prepared are you for the possibility of a labor interruption and what would you do?”
The last piece is a dealing with the blow to your reputation in the event of a raid. “Do you simply want to leave it to homeland security to define what’s happening through their press releases or do you want to engage actively in managing your own reputation?” Regelbrugge says.
In late September, the House was looking at a new way to handle H-2B requests. An amendment was adopted on a voice vote to establish a returning worker exemption and allocate visas on a semi-annual basis rather than twice a year. There’s also an effort to weight the visas so that if there are 10 percent fewer visas than the market calls for, all take a 10 percent cut instead of someone getting shut out.
“The equity effort right now in the system is win-lose,” Regelbrugge says. “It’s like playing the lottery and somebody wins and somebody else loses, and it’s all or nothing.”
When putting down lawn treatments, inconsistencies can result in uneven applications, wasted product and added costs for a lawn care business. The key to minimizing these problems lies in controlling as many variables as possible – and it all starts with equipment calibration.
Whether using a sprayer or a spreader to treat a jobsite, calibrating that equipment is the foundation to build employee training upon. At Arizona Weed King, basic calibration training involves spraying into a gallon bucket with a pressure meter attached to the end of the hose. Crews measure how much product is coming out and measure the RPM to get the settings and flow rates correct, said COO Lance Robinson.
“The hard part about calibration is not running the motor at a consistent RPM,” he says. “That’s a challenge I’ve tried to address by just taking that out of the equation. When you use pumps that are belt-driven rather than direct-drive pumps, you have a variance in speed because the faster they spin, the more product flow you are getting. I want to get to a point where I can run full-throttle motors and know that that’s where the sweet spot is. When you run it wide open, you know that that’s as much flow as I’m going to get out of that pump, and then I can measure it from that point.”
The maintenance factor.
One way to help reduce application inconsistencies is to stay on top of equipment maintenance. Lawn treatments involve harsh chemicals and herbicides that can deteriorate metal over time, causing clogs and reducing equipment performance. Robinson’s team cleans and recalibrates their equipment at least once a month to minimize this factor.
“You can get it to the point where old enough equipment could have a quarter of the size of the opening, so it can get really low and you have to stay on top of cleaning and replace the wearable parts as often as you can. It’s not hard to calibrate your equipment if you stay on top of it,” Robinson says.
The human factor.
Even if spray equipment is perfectly calibrated and maintained, an untrained employee could stand there and spray a yard for far too long. This is when monitoring rates and mix levels become crucial tools in training new applicators.
“Calibration is where it starts, but it also goes into watching your numbers and honing a guy in to make sure they are spraying the right amount,” Robinson says.
Robinson typically uses a 50-gallon-per-acre rate for his applications. Each property is measured in advance and then recorded for future service visits so that applicators know about how much mixed material they should be going through to get the job done. He trains his employees to monitor the square footage they’ve walked compared to what’s left in the tanks as they go.
“You have to stay on top of your employees’ numbers and make sure you are reviewing them on a weekly basis with every applicator that you have,” Robinson says.
Nozzle pressure is another criterion for employee self-monitoring. Depending on the type of spray tips being used, a certain psi should equate to X amount of flow. By using this data, applicators can estimate to then get an idea of how long a job should take them, Robinson says.
“It’s not exact, but everything gets bottlenecked down to the end of the hose line and I know that if I can maintain that pressure out of my pump, I am getting X gallons per minute of flow,” he says.
“You have to stay on top of your employees’ numbers and make sure you are reviewing them on a weekly basis.” Lance Robinson, COO, Arizona Weed King
The training factor.
At Curbside Lawn Care & Decorative Curb in Powder Springs, Georgia, hitting the right numbers comes down to effective employee training. They start new employees off by learning the basics right out in the parking lot. Trainees go out to a pre-measured area and either use water or inexpensive material like lime to practice using various sprayer and spreader equipment, says CEO Travis Beaulieu.
“We start off really simple so they can feel the pressure, and then we time them and see how fast they are walking. When you’re spraying, the speed of walking is a pretty big deal. On a push spreader, if you’re walking too fast, it can throw too much or too little. That takes time for people to get because it’s not necessarily natural to pace yourself all the time. By us doing the mapped out area, we can time it and say, ‘You need to slow it down or speed it up,’” he says.
Nine times out of 10, new employees tend to spray heavily because they want to make sure they are putting down enough material. To combat this, pair a new employee with an experienced applicator who can correct them as they walk a jobsite for several weeks or months. The new employee should get a feel for the equipment, the pace they should be walking, and a sense of what to look for on a property, Beaulieu says.
“One of our most difficult things is to train someone to look for something that we just naturally look for because we have been doing this for 20 years, and not getting frustrated because they have only been doing this a year. Consistency in training is key because those little training differences can become a bigger problem someday if people start changing it to their own ways. You have to set in stone the way that it should be done,” he says.
You can also monitor the new employee’s numbers from the office by viewing digital records for red flags. Those records should include everything from oil and coolant levels in the trucks to property notes to the levels of mixed material in the tanks.
If feedback from those supervision efforts doesn’t correct the employee quickly enough, LCOs might try switching out spray nozzle tips to instantly reduce the amount of material they put out, Robinson says.
“As they learn the system and how to spray, their efficiency goes up and we can get them into using the regular size tips and nozzles,” he says.
The environmental factor.
While it might seem better to have too much than not enough, it is still important to regulate chemical use for both the material costs as well as environmental costs, Robinson says.
“Even though I have a lot of fail-safes, I want to make sure I’m not wasting product because there’s also environmental factors that go into it. I stay within a range where if I go 25 percent in either direction, I’m still within the product label and I can then work with the applicator to get them to where I want them to be,” he says.
“We are going to be environmentally responsible as a weed control company, which means we stay within the law and within the label and whatever we are approved to spray is what we are going to spray.”
The author is a freelance writer based in Kentucky.
When the snow flies, your equipment has to be up to the task. You’ll spend long hours in the dark and cold pushing snow under the worst possible conditions. What you don’t need is equipment that’s complicated or that requires too many steps to get the job done. “I like simplicity when it comes to features and moving parts,” says Steven A. Christy, president of LEI Corporation in the Greater Boston, Wooster, Providence and Hartford area. “The more complexity, the more that can break.”
But with technology constantly being updated, it’s also important to assess what’s available in the market and figure out if your fleet needs updating. “It’s helpful to know what new equipment and products are out there so you can clean faster and more efficiently,” says Don Nelson, president of Glacier Snow Management in Fargo, North Dakota, and Moorhead, Minnesota. “Talk to a lot of people in the industry, as well as the vendors to figure out what will work for you. Then you have to choose based on serviceability and reliability.”
1. Ease of use.
One of the most important issues for any snow removal operation is how intuitive the controls are. Your eyes need to be on the road, not fiddling with the controls. “I’ve used systems where you have to go through too many prompts to get to what you need, such as gallons used,” Nelson says. “We use salters now that have a small touchscreen that tells you the exact number of pounds per lane mile we’re putting down while we’re rolling. These types of digital controls allow you to see rate and amounts at a glance. It’s simple and accurate, which is important because I need to log what I’m using for each job.”
2. Joystick versus button-type controller.
Joysticks, which typically are mounted to the dash or console, and button-types, which are handheld but attached by a cord and connector, are the most common configurations. Other variations include the pistol grip controller or a thumb-controlled joystick. All controllers are similar in terms of function, though they vary a bit in size. It typically comes down to personal preference and, quite honestly, what your chosen plow system comes with, Nelson says.
There’s no consensus on what’s best, and you’ll find fans for every configuration. “The button-types don’t feel intuitive to me,” says Stanley Genadek, who posts instructional landscape videos through the Dirt Monkey University YouTube channel and is president of Genadek Landscaping and Excavation in the Greater Twin Cities, Minnesota area. “Also, the buttons may be too close together and too small. It can be tough to hit the right one if you’re wearing heavy winter gloves.”
On the other hand, some operators like button controllers because one button has multiple functions that can create different configurations, Christy says. “The buttons are straightforward, and you’ve got a lot of flexibility and options whether you need to push or contain snow.”
While you can upgrade to a different controller if you don’t like the original factory equipment, that usually runs a few hundred dollars or more per unit, which can get pricey fast. That’s why it’s always good idea to put your hands on each type before buying. You may find one that feels better or more comfortable to you than another, for whatever reason.
3. Wireless technology.
With the advent of wireless technology, some operators find that dumping the cord, which can get in the way when you’re getting in and out of the truck, is convenient. You’re also not bumping into a mounted controller, which sometimes isn’t located in the best spot in-cab. Wireless controllers require no dash wires or drilling, and some are designed to control both the plow and other equipment such as a tailgate spreader. Most users say connectivity hasn’t been an issue.
But just like the TV remote at home, the transmitter may have a tendency to do a disappearing act. “Wireless is definitely an option, but it can be easy to lose track of those controllers,” Genadek says. Most are about the size of a key fob or slightly larger than a credit card, so they can slip out of the truck or get taken home in the last operator’s coat pocket by mistake.
Your eyes need to be on the road, not fiddling with the controls.
4. Safety features.
Some controllers allow you to lock out the system, disabling the plow to prevent unauthorized use. Other features that make it easier to use the controllers include backlit controls for operation in dark conditions, status LEDs so you know what’s active, and automatic shutoff if not engaged for a period of time.
5. Universal control options.
Some manufacturers now offer universal controllers which fit any plow in their lineup of offerings. This enhances fleet flexibility since you won’t have to keep switching out specific controllers to individual plows.
Reading or watching online product reviews, talking to others in the industry, and picking the vendors’ brains is helpful for learning about product reliability. But there are no guarantees. “After more than 30 years in snow removal, I’ve learned there’s good and bad in every brand,” Genadek says. “I always say you need to pick the shop that will service you the fastest, and buy your equipment from them. Every single piece of equipment is going to break, probably at midnight on a Friday night. Will your shop get you back up and running by Saturday morning?
The author is a freelance writer based in the Northeast.
When Tony Zalocha and his brother Neil founded Stone Age Landscaping 14 years ago in Utica, New York, their methodical and meticulous attention to detail on jobsites quickly caught the attention of not only clients, but also passersby.
“I can’t tell you how many times people were out just walking their dog and would say, ‘I can’t believe how neat the jobsite is!’ It was just my brother and I at the time, and we would always make sure all of the tools were neatly stacked in a perfectly straight line out on the front lawn,” Tony Zalocha says.
Zalocha tells this story every spring at a daylong, all-staff meeting where management goes over the company philosophy and standard operating procedures, all of which were developed from those early years when the co-founders would challenge themselves to find the most efficient ways to complete tasks and get to the next jobsite.
“When I do it myself, it sets a good example for everyone else,” Zalocha says. “I can tell them stories of us doing it for everyone in the past, and they get it. We try to explain how important it is to put off that feeling that we are professionals. In case we are a few dollars more than the next company down the road, it’s obvious that our trucks are loaded up, we have uniforms on and our tools are here neat. We hold ourselves in higher regard that way and I think it goes a long way.”
Whether it’s a hardscape project, a landscape project or maintenance job, every crew has the standard operating procedure attached to their work orders that spells out everything from where to place debris on site to how to service a property in segments rather than all at once to maintain a neat, professional and safe environment.
“We try not to cross over driveways with our feet unless we have to and we always park in the road,” Zalocha says. “Every crew has backpack blowers, brooms and hoses so that at the end of every day they blow everything off and wash it down if needed. It’s our policy to smoke near the truck, away from the clients’ view. They take their butts with them and leave no trace behind. I think people appreciate that.”
The company also switched to enclosed trailers for their hardscape sites, which has allowed for better organization that not only keeps sites tidy, but also cuts back on labor.
“That enclosed trailer is pretty much a billboard for us. Before the trucks roll out of the shop in the morning, we have a procedure for loading them so things are stacked neatly. If that’s done correctly, then they can take tools off and load back on much more easily,” Zalocha says.
To help enforce a company culture of cleanliness, Zalocha himself will periodically check to see which of his crews has the cleanest truck and take them out to lunch.
And while company culture alone may encourage employees to go above and beyond, business owners may find that those incentives can help to create that culture change and yield fringe benefits to both the client and the business as a whole. Allen Clemons, president of Great Estates Landscaping in Covington, Georgia, implemented an employee incentive program there in February.
The program involves a quality control inspection that is conducted by managers on site every 60 days where they grade crews in 12 categories, including pruning, weed control, mowing, irrigation management, horticulture and cleanliness, among others. If a crew earns a cumulative score above 87 percent for all of the properties that they are responsible for, they then qualify for a bonus. A score below 87 percent indicates that the crew has ultimately come up short for the client in some way, Clemons says.
“What it does is it incentivizes the crew to do the right thing when no one is looking. This program is just a win-win-win. The customer gets better service, we know where we stand and we have a way to measure people. Without metrics, you can’t hold people accountable. By holding them accountable, everything changes,” he says.
Crews are further motivated with a whiteboard that lists monthly scores for each crew and truck across all company branches. The crew of the month with the highest score gets an additional bonus. Employees use the whiteboard to see where they rank and to learn from the top scorers to try to improve their own scores.
“Then your management doesn’t have to carry all of the weight. Employees can help one another and lean on one another. It’s a culture change. Once everyone believes that we are the best at what we do, and they are leaning into one another and holding one another accountable because they want to get more for them and their families, it creates a momentum that is absolutely unstoppable,” he says.
Employees are told on a weekly basis exactly what is expected of them at every property. Whether it’s making sure the trashcans are empty at the mail center or making sure that a particular client’s holly is pruned 6 inches below the windowsill because that’s where she likes them, all of those details are compiled in a written job description and factored into the quality inspection grade.
“When they know these things, we give them the tools to do their job,” he says. “Nine times out of 10, they will do the right thing and go above and beyond if it’s explained to them exactly what is expected of them.”
The inspections are filled out on an iPad so that they can immediately be recorded in a software that lets the company track employee progress and identify areas that warrant additional training. The inspection is also emailed to clients to give them an opportunity to grade the work themselves and provide additional comments. While client responses don’t affect the scores used to qualify employees for incentives, they do open an invaluable line of communication, Clemons says.
“If we score ourselves a 94 and they score us an 88, there’s a problem and it creates a conversation from there. A lot of things happen because of that. Client retention continues to rise; it went from mid-60s to well above 90 percent now. Our enhancements and installs have increased almost 30 percent because of how we are communicating with customers even more,” he says.
Clemons has also found that employee loyalty has increased and acquiring new talent has become easier as a result of the program.
“We went from having trouble finding qualified people to having people to choose from because we pay the same amount as the company down the street, but we also have this incentive program that says if you work harder, you have the opportunity to make extra money for your family.
If you take care of your people and they feel good about what they are doing and they believe in it, they are always going to take care of their customers. I would spend less time calling customers and trying to sell them things and more time taking care of your employees, because your employees take care of your customers,” Clemons says.
The author is a freelance writer based in Kentucky.