LYONS — As laborers shift huge pieces of red sandstone in a rock quarry near this tiny town, the ping of metal tools sounds against thick rock slabs.
Quarrying is taking place at BB Stoneworks Inc. north of Lyons in Larimer County, but it’s happening at a slower pace than it was this time last year. Business owners Brenda and Bernard Buster say they’re short-staffed without foreign laborers to pry layers of heavy sandstone from the mountainside.
And now the couple fears that late-summer demand for sandstone will be four times more than they can produce.
Many landscapers and quarry owners, like the Busters, were left in the lurch this spring after a federal cap of 66,000 foreign guest workers in the United States was met Jan. 3. Last year, the quota wasn’t reached until March and most landscapers and quarry owners’ requests for visas were approved.
“We were scrambling to find employees for the jobs we had already scheduled for this spring,” said Krystle Brandt, finance manager for Ward’s Landscape Inc. in Longmont. “Finding skilled laborers is very, very difficult.”
Ward’s applied for visas for 15 guest workers earlier this year, some from Peru, to plant trees, lay sod and do stone work during the busy season this spring and summer.
Today, Brandt and the other managers who run the landscaping business are keeping their fingers crossed they will be able to find some reliable American workers who are willing to take on arduous outdoor work.
But many quarry operators and landscapers are not hopeful.
That’s why those two industries are lobbying Congress to pass a bill introduced in February that would exclude from an annual cap people on guest visas who worked in the United States in the past three years.
Called the Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act, the proposed law might allow them to hire foreign workers later this season. The bill, however, was referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary in February, and no other major action has been taken on it since.
“I ended up losing a third of my business or more because I can’t produce the rock,” said Robert James Phillips, owner of Phillips Stone Co. & Quarries, who had his request for guest workers denied this year and last. “Right now, I’ve got two guys up there where I should have six or eight.”
Since 1999, Phillips had employed the same foreign workers each season, and he says he’s disappointed the cap is keeping them from returning to Lyons.
“Some of them are trying to build homes,” he said. “They’re hard-working people. They work, save their money. They’re paying taxes. It’s really a good program. I can’t understand why they want to put a cap on it.”
Phillips said he wants Congress to pass the Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act to protect his 40-year-old business.
The Busters agree, saying they will lose money if they can’t hire foreign workers this year.
BB Stoneworks also employs a dozen Mexican workers who live in the United States on permanent residence visas, but Brenda Buster said the company can meet demand only through June with current stockpiles and the work that’s going on today.
Laborers at the BB Stoneworks quarry have to be able to lift at least 100 pounds, because sandstone weighs about 155 pounds per cubic foot and slabs of the rock have to be carried from the work area to nearby pallets.
The tools of the trade are also heavy, some weighing as much as 40 pounds each.
Few Americans have the patience, strength and speed to quarry sandstone well, according to the Busters, who have come to rely on foreign laborers who arrive eager for work in the spring and leave the country in November or December.
The company’s application for guest worker visas for 30 Mexican nationals was denied earlier this year.
“This is a very labor-intensive job,” Bernard Buster said. “All of the labor is done manually.”