March 20, 2018
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Boosting foreign workers cap ‘better late than never’ for Maine’s tourism industry

Bill Trotter | BDN
Bill Trotter | BDN
The Bar Harbor Regency hotel, managed by Ocean Properties, is one of several hotels in Maine suffering under the H-2B visa cap.
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By Alex Acquisto, BDN Staff

BAR HARBOR, Maine — A compromise spending bill presented Monday by the U.S. House Appropriations Committee could increase visas for temporary foreign workers allowed in the country by up to 70,000, potentially alleviating what many tourism industry employers in Maine say is a widespread shortage of seasonal employees.

Congress might approve allowing between 60,000 and 70,000 more H-2B workers into the U.S. during the remainder of the 2017 federal fiscal year, which ends in September, in addition to the 66,000 visa cap, the limit for which was reached in March.

An exemption that counted returning workers in a separate pool, in place in years past, was not renewed for 2017, which meant returning workers had to compete on a first-come, first-serve basis with new visa seekers. While that exemption would not be reinstated with the proposed bill, which could be approved by Congress this week, the proposal would allow those returning workers to apply for visas, Steve Hewins, president of the Maine Restaurant and Innkeepers Association said Wednesday.

But even with congressional approval, and if the U.S. Department of Labor expedites the visa-approval process, getting needed H-2B employees in place for the summer likely is not feasible, according to one hotel industry executive.

Eben Salvatore oversees operations for four hotels and five restaurants owned by Ocean Properties in Bar Harbor — including the West Street Hotel, Bar Harbor Regency Oceanfront Resort and Stewman’s Lobster Pound. Each year the firm hires approximately 800 seasonal employees, 70 of whom are H-2B visa employees mostly from Jamaica.

Without having the returning worker exemption in place, the shortage of people applying for summer tourism industry jobs up and down the east coast are palpable, Salvatore said Tuesday. There just aren’t enough local residents available and interested to fill all the openings at the hotels and restaurants that open in late May and close in October.

“We’re in the same boat as everybody,” Salvatore said. “The seasonal business model cannot survive without this short-term foreign labor.”

But for many other employers, some of whom have delayed the opening of their seasonal businesses, Hewins said the reprieve that will come with the legislation is “better late than never.” In order for an employer to even qualify to hire H-2B visa holders, they have to prove from the start that, despite efforts to hire locals, locals don’t want the jobs.

Danielle and Tim Ray, who own and operate the 22-room Quimby House Inn and Spa in Bar Harbor, hired four H-2B employees for the first time last year after no locals applied for the positions. They had planned to do the same this year, but their approval from the U.S. Dept. of Labor arrived in the mail the same day in March that the H-2B visa was capped.

The Rays, who run the inn with Danielle’s father and 10 additional employees, “are at a loss,” Danielle said.

“It has hit us hard. We need those employees — it’s extremely pertinent to our business being successful,” said Danielle, who hasn’t been able to staff the front desk and will likely have to fill the position herself.

Not to mention, according to Salvatore, the reverberating effects that come with a lack of filled positions. If, for example, housekeeping employees aren’t hired and the hotel can’t open in time, it “immediately affects more [employee’s ability to work] than just the seasonal worker,” and the “normal operation would be severely limited if not prevented by the shortage of help.”

This sentiment was echoed in a letter Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins, along with a handful of others, sent earlier this week to the to the U.S. Senate leadership about Maine’s scarcity of seasonal employees.

Without passage of the compromise spending bill, “many employers in our states will be without the critical seasonal workforce they need to operate during their peak seasons,” the senators wrote.

A lack of seasonal H-2B employees, they added, could “in turn lay off U.S. workers whose jobs are supported in part by H-2B workers.”

For the Quimby House, a business that’s a fraction of the size of Ocean Properties, the inability to fill the H-2B positions creates 30 or 40 percent deficits in their overall staff.

Because Danielle and her husband can fill in where help is lacking, it likely won’t affect the overall operation this year, but there’s a chance it could to some degree next year, depending on how stressful the upcoming season is and if Congress approves more H-2B visas.

“We’re trying to not have that grave of an outlook,” she said. “I’m not giving up yet.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the president of the Maine Restaurant and Innkeepers Association. His name is Steve Hewins.

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