Businesses in Maine that rely on summer help are hoping that Congress will come to the rescue.
Because of new limits on the seasonal worker visa program, restaurants, hotels and other tourist-centered operations are scrambling to find seasonal employees. Until Congress opens the door to more H-2B foreign workers, those businesses are finding ways to attract locals onto the payroll.
The wheels are rolling at the Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop. Proprietor Joe Minutolo oversees general maintenance on the dozens of bikes he will rent later this summer. The shop is open year-round, but during past peak summer seasons, Minutolo says he has relied on foreign workers under the federal H-2B program.
This year, he says, could be different.
“Because of the new situation that’s going on with these visaed workers, I think it’s going to create some holes for us,” he says.
The situation is that the pool of seasonal visa workers who normally provide a reliable labor force for Bar Harbor’s tourism industry dried up in March, when the federal H-2B program reached its limit of 33,000 for the current fiscal year.
Many of those slots were filled in southern states. Additionally, as of this year, returning workers are now counted toward the cap.
“There are people who have come here year after year after year and worked in the same restaurants as cooks, as waiters, as whatever is needed, and they’re like family. And now for the first time, it’s uncertain that they’ll be able to come back,” says Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Martha Searchfield.
Searchfield says that’s why the chamber is holding a job fair Saturday, hoping to attract significant numbers of workers from the area and the region to fill a long list of openings.
“All types of businesses — retail, restaurants, the tour boats, all the trips, everything. All types of workers are needed,” she says.
Maine’s two senators have submitted legislation that could bring some relief to seasonal employers. The bills call for restoring the original provision that exempts returning H-2B workers from the annual quota.
U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent, says the legislation also calls for an immediate review of the 33,000 seasonal positions, to make sure that they were actually filled.
“The best thing that can happen right now is for the administration to do an audit of how many of these visas are actually being used, because the indications are that the visas are taken out early in this sort of deadline process and a lot of them never get used,” he says. “So if we can determine — and the administration can do this very quickly — which ones haven’t been used, that would open up an allocation that would be available to our businesses for this summer.”
Until then, Bar Harbor area employers are enticing workers in other ways. Higher wages are part of the solution. Searchfield says some businesses are also weighing new schedules that might appeal to older workers in the region, interested in working only a day or two each week.
But John Duley, manager of Galyn’s Restaurant, says many of the open jobs in town are not necessarily geared toward that demographic.
“It’s a physically demanding position, most of these positions, you know, the restaurant positions in the front of the house are physically demanding, as are housekeeping positions in some of the inns and hotels around here,” he says.
Statewide, the need for additional seasonal visa workers dominates many of the meetings that Steve Hewins attends as president of the Maine Restaurant and the Maine Innkeepers Association. He says that while Maine’s tourism industry faces ongoing hiring challenges, it is, to some extent, a victim of its own success.
“You know we reported a few weeks ago record restaurant and lodging sales in 2016, which was on top of a record 2015, which shows very little signs of at least the demand abating,” he says. “So you’ve got all these factors working together and created an acute situation for our businesses in Maine.”
While it may not be much of a consolation for Bar Harbor businesses, Hewins says they at least still have some time to find new seasonal workers, unlike southern Maine destinations such as Ogunquit and York, where many of the tourist-centered businesses are already open.