By Jamie Leary

LITTLETON, Colo. (CBS4) – The U.S. visa program that offers work to non-agriculture workers is growing in demand. The latest round of applications for the H-2B program broke the Department of Labor’s website. The demand for the labor far outweighed the number of visas available.

“There’s a labor problem. We have a serious problem and I’m not sure we know how to solve it and it’s going to affect everybody because we have to increase prices to find people,” said John Erbert.

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Erbert has been mowing lawns for 36 years. Finding clients has never been a problem. Mow Time is the largest residential mowing service in the state. Erbert says it’s finding the labor that has become increasingly difficult.

“If you would’ve told me years ago that your No. 1 problem is going to be finding employees, I would’ve thought you were crazy,” he said.

He believes there are so many job options for the American workforce that mowing lawns is no longer a desirable option, even though the wages are competitive.

Since 2016, Erbert has relied on H-2B visa program to help fill the gap, but with the increased demand for the program his application didn’t make the cut this year.

“We’re gonna have to lay people off this year. We’re going to lose revenue, sell trucks.”

He said the biggest blow was losing the men he hired who became like family.

“It changed the whole business. I mean, it was amazing.”

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Erbert was able to hire back the same crew every summer to mow lawns.

“They took care of our customers, they valued their job.”

They even helped Erbert propose to his fiance.

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“We developed a relationship with them like no other employees in the past.”

It was 2 weeks ago he found out his application was denied. He said some of his office staff cried. He had call everyone on the crew to let them know he wouldn’t be able to provide the summer work this year.

The cost to even apply for the program is close to $10,000; Erbert will likely be refunded only a portion of that.

“Is that worth a gamble? And I’ll still say yes because there’s a chance we would’ve got them.”

Todd Ahl with the Windsor-based H-2B consulting firm Labor Solutions says Colorado is the third largest user of the H-2B Visa program. Erbert is one of his clients and says his case is not uncommon.

Ahl says there were a total of 33,000 visas issued for the entire U.S. this summer. Based on the number of applications, he says 133,000 could have been used.

There is strict criteria employers must meet to even qualify. Number one on the list from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website; You must prove there are not enough U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified and available to do the temporary work.

Erbert has documented all his attempts to find the labor within the U.S. and has gone to extremes to find help.

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“There was one time I actually even stood on the street corner with a sign saying ‘Now Hiring.’ I was doing anything I could to find people.”

Erbert will begin the hiring process for the summer in the near future but anticipates he will have to close Mow Time.

He says the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security has the ability to release more visas. He hopes his story and others like it influence change.

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“This program gave us hope and it’s the best thing that was available towards us and so I’d like people to know that this program exists and we need to encourage people in our government to let us have these options available to us.”

Jamie Leary