OGUNQUIT, Maine — Inns, restaurants and other businesses that rely on seasonal workers throughout the busy tourist months are concerned about the season ahead as they say that workforce is in jeopardy.
The federal H-2B visa program allows local businesses to bring in workers from foreign countries to fill jobs those businesses are unable to fill with local workers. But this supplemental workforce is in jeopardy at a critical time of year as the U.S. Department of Labor has temporarily suspended processing H-2B visa applications, causing widespread alarm in the local hospitality industry.
“This is a critical supplement to our workforce,” said Allyson Cavaretta, general manager at the Meadowmere Resort in Ogunquit.
Each summer, The Meadowmere Resort brings in 15 to 18 housekeepers and cooks through the program. At The Beachmere Inn, also in Ogunquit, Innkeeper Sarah Diment has applied for five H-2B visa workers in the past, but this year is in need of six to fill her seasonal housekeeping staff.
Effective March 5, the U.S. Department of Labor and Homeland Security stopped processing H-2B visa applications until further notice, in light of a March 4 federal court order in Perez vs. Perez, a cased based out of Florida.
This action has left those in the local hospitality industry wondering how they will open for the season without the help they need.
Senators Susan Collins and Angus King are stepping in to help. Cathy Goodwin, state office representative for Collins said both Collins and King are treating the situation as an emergency and are working as quickly as they can to resolve it.
The two senators today sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security asking that the processing of H-2B applications resume immediately.
“Those applications that have been approved should be finalized and those that are pending should be put into a priority system and processed according to their merits,” the letter states.
“Many Maine employers rely on H-2B workers. The unilateral delay you have imposed, if not promptly lifted, will create great hardship on these employers and limit the services they can provide to their customers and the general public. The economic impact on the state of Maine, as well as across the country, could be severe,” the letter continues.
Both Cavaretta and Karen Arel, president of the Ogunquit Chamber of Commerce, have also reached out to Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, and say the congresswoman and her staff members are doing everything they can to aid in a speedy resolution.
Arel and Laura Dolce, executive director of the Kennebunk-Kennebunkport-Arundel Chamber of Commerce, both sent out alerts to their members about the issue. Arel said she has heard concern from several of her members.
Cavaretta said The Meadowmere relies on the H-2B visa program to fill their housekeeping and cooking staff positions with workers from Jamaica, many of whom return every summer, and have worked at the resort for five to 10 years.
Caravetta says the H-2B visa program has very strict regulations, and is designed to help fill positions that businesses cannot fill with local applicants. She said she is required to advertise her housekeeping and cook positions locally for a minimum of three months, and in all the years she has done so, she has only had two applicants for the open positions.
She said having seasonal foreign workers allows her to fill all 144 rooms at the resort during the busy tourist season in Ogunquit, which in turn allows her to maintain a full-time staff of 25 to 30 employees.
“Economists have estimated that for every one H-2B visa issued, four local full-time jobs are created,” Cavaretta said. “We are a good example of that here.”
At The Beachmere Inn, Diment says news of the H-2B visa crisis has reached Jamaica, where her housekeepers come from. She has already heard from three of her workers who rely on their jobs at the Inn to support their entire families for the year.
“We’re trying to tell them everything we can, and reassure them,” she said. “Most of them haven’t worked all winter, because there are no jobs for them there, so they are very worried.”
Diment also said that her local housekeeping team is in “panic mode” right now. She said most of them are mothers who need a stable schedule so they can meet the demands of their family and jobs, and they’re worried about the added workload if the foreign workers don’t arrive. Diment said she worries about burn-out, a greater injury rate and exhaustion for her employees if the workload is too heavy.
Employers have to wait until 120 days before the date that they need their foreign workers to start work to apply for the visa, Arel said.
Cavaretta said all of her workers usually arrive at the end of April so her applications have been “in the chute” since late December and need only one final signature to move forward.
Arel is hoping that at the very least, the applications that are already in the system will be processed and released.
Diment said even if the situation is resolved in the coming weeks, there will be a delay in the arrival of her workers.
“I’ll be making a lot of beds this year,” Diment said.
Both Cavaretta and Diment said it’s hard to fathom how to move forward if there’s no supplemental workforce this summer.
“Those are all questions we will have to face, step by step in the coming weeks if we have to,” Cavaretta said. “It would have a big impact on our season, that I am certain of.”
If you are a business affected by this suspension and would like to share your story, contact Reporter Donna Buttarazzi at firstname.lastname@example.org.