Big business and labor have resolved a dispute over a low-skilled worker program that threatened to hold up agreement on a sweeping immigration bill, according to a person familiar with the negotiations.
The deal was struck in a phone call late Friday night with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, U.S. Chamber of Commerce head Tom Donohue, and Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who's been mediating the dispute.
The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of a formal announcement, said the deal resolves disagreements over wages for the new workers and which industries would be included. That had led talks to break down a week ago.
The deal must still be signed off on by the seven other senators working with Schumer to negotiate a bipartisan immigration bill — but that's expected to happen. The agreement between business and labor removes the biggest hurdle to completion of the immigration bill to secure the border, crack down on employers, improve legal immigration and create a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants already here.
The bipartisan Senate group is expected to introduce the bill the week of April 8 after Congress returns from a two-week recess.
The AFL-CIO and the Chamber had been fighting over wages for tens of thousands of low-skilled workers who would be brought in under the new program to fill jobs in construction, hotels and resorts, nursing homes and restaurants, and other industries.
On Friday, officials from both sides said there was basic agreement on the wage issue, and Schumer said a final deal on the worker dispute was very close.
"We're feeling very optimistic on immigration: Aspiring Americans will receive the road map to citizenship they deserve and we can modernize 'future flow' without reducing wages for any local workers, regardless of what papers they carry," AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser said in a statement earlier this week. "Future flow" refers to future arrivals of legal immigrants.
Under the emerging agreement between business and labor, a new "W" visa program would bring tens of thousands of lower-skilled workers a year to the country. The program would be capped at 200,000 a year, but the number of visas would fluctuate, depending on unemployment rates, job openings, employer demand and data collected by a new federal bureau pushed by the labor movement as an objective monitor of the market.
The workers would be able to change jobs and could seek permanent residency. Under current temporary worker programs, personnel can't move from employer to employer and have no path to permanent U.S. residence and citizenship. And currently there's no good way for employers to bring many low-skilled workers to the U.S. An existing visa program for low-wage nonagricultural workers is capped at 66,000 per year and is supposed to apply only to seasonal or temporary jobs.
The Chamber of Commerce said workers would earn actual wages paid to American workers or the prevailing wages for the industry they're working in, whichever is higher. The Labor Department determines prevailing wage based on customary rates in specific localities, so that it varies from city to city.
The low-skilled worker issue had loomed for weeks as perhaps the toughest matter to settle in monthslong closed-door talks on immigration among the senators, including Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida. The issue helped sink the last major attempt at immigration overhaul in 2007, when the legislation foundered on the Senate floor after an amendment was added to end a temporary worker program after five years, threatening a key priority of the business community.
The amendment passed by just one vote, 49-48. President Barack Obama, a senator at the time, joined in the narrow majority voting to end the program after five years.