Summer foreign workers critical to Maine resorts, where staff remember last summer’s federal red tape struggles with visa processing

Audley Smith of Kingston, Jamaica, recently started his second season working at Young's Lobster Pound in Belfast. He is one of about eight workers who come to Maine through the H2B visa program. &quotIt's good," he said of his workplace.
Abigail Curtis | BDN
Audley Smith of Kingston, Jamaica, recently started his second season working at Young's Lobster Pound in Belfast. He is one of about eight workers who come to Maine through the H2B visa program. "It's good," he said of his workplace. Buy Photo
Posted June 22, 2014, at 4:38 p.m.

OGUNQUIT, Maine — So far, the Meadowmere Resort in this bustling seaside community has not experienced the governmental red tape and other holdups that last summer delayed the entry of their foreign seasonal workforce.

But the memory is still fresh, according to Allyson Cavaretta, the director of sales and marketing. For years, the Meadowmere has hired around 15 temporary workers with H-2B visas, who mostly work in housekeeping or in the resort’s kitchen. One of those employees, a woman from Jamaica who had worked multiple years at the Meadowmere, last year ran into some problems at immigration at the airport in Miami that Cavaretta called “horrifying.”

The woman was detained at customs, and kept for 14 hours in a room with no access to water, a bathroom, a telephone or food while she was interviewed repeatedly before being deported. She had been asked to come back by resort staff, which had paid for and secured her H-2B visa and her plane ticket to Boston, and a vehicle from the hotel drove down to pick her up. But she wasn’t there.

“What was horrifying for us was the ability to lose a human being in the customs process,” Cavaretta said last week. “It was very frightening, to have no way of knowing where on the planet this person is.”

One year ago, owners of tourism-related businesses testified during a congressional hearing on the delays and problems with processing the H-2B visa applications, which many Maine hotels and restaurants depend on to secure staffing through the summer season. The issue was an ongoing dispute over the work rules governing the program, according to Greg Dugal, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association.

A lawsuit over pay for the foreign workers caused the departments of Labor and Homeland Security to suspend processing of all the visa applications, and left many companies without the workers they needed.

“Over the years, there’s been all kinds of problems,” he said. “Sometimes with Homeland Security. Sometimes with the Department of Justice. Fewer and fewer people participate because of the complicated nature [of the process].”

While some people may celebrate that information, suggesting that companies should hire locally, Dugal and others say it is not that easy.

“If people didn’t hire visa workers, there’d be such a strain on the workforce,” he said. “People say I would hire an American in a second — if I could find one in Ogunquit.”

That is the reality for places like the Meadowmere, according to Cavaretta. Ogunquit has a year-round population of around 1,200. The resort has 144 rooms, and in the summertime, the population on the property is about 500 people a day, nearly half the amount of people who live in the beachside town. Before the Meadowmere can hire foreign workers for housekeeping and other positions, it advertises locally for five or six months.

“It would be a pleasure to hire locally, in our own backyard,” she said. “We have no applicants.”

Through the visa program, temporary foreign workers are paid a wage that’s determined by the government and is “well above” the minimum wage, she said. The resort also has built employee housing for its staff.

“It’s an expensive program to take part it. We participate in it because there’s a genuine need for it,” she said.

The foreign workers, most of whom right now are from Jamaica, often return year after year to the Meadowmere, where they are considered to be more than just housekeepers, Cavaretta said.

“They’re people. They’re humans. They’re family to us. Family serving family is our motto,” she said.

That’s one reason why what happened to the Jamaican woman was so upsetting, she said. Hotel staff reached out to the Maine congressional delegation to try to help their missing employee. Eventually they did hear from her, and learned that she was safely returned to Jamaica, but did not want to try to return this summer to the Meadowmere and risk further problems with customs. This season, the resort proactively included extra paperwork in the visa applications for their H-2B workers, in a bid to avoid repeating last year’s problems.

“Customs does not disclose why [it happened], and we presume going forward we will never know,” Cavaretta said.

BDN efforts Friday to speak with someone at the Department of Homeland Security were unsuccessful.

“It’s one thing to debate whether this program is a valid program,” Cavaretta said. “It’s another thing for someone you receive Christmas cards from to be lost in time and space. If it was a U.S. citizen this happened to in a foreign country, I can’t imagine it would be OK.”

 

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