WASHINGTON, D.C. — The federal government has resumed processing applications filed by businesses looking to hire foreign workers for seasonal jobs, a move that will be welcome news to Maine inns and restaurants.
A federal court in Florida agreed Tuesday to a stay of its March 4 order that stated that the U.S. Department of Labor did not have the authority to regulate the temporary work permits known as H-2B visas, Rep. Chellie Pingree said in a statement Wednesday.
“This is good news for small businesses in Maine who need to hire these workers to staff up for the summer tourist season. A delay in processing these requests would have made life very difficult for these business owners,” Pingree said.
The issue had concerned Maine business owners, particularly in the food and lodging industries, who use between 1,000 and 1,300 of the temporary seasonal workers each year. Nationally, 66,000 H-2B visas are issued each year for temporary, nonagricultural workers who fill mostly seasonal jobs.
Before businesses can seek foreign workers, they must advertise the jobs and interview any resident applicants for the positions. Once they have certified that there are not enough workers to fill the positions, businesses can seek permission to hire foreign workers.
Greg Dugal, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association, estimated that about 60 businesses in Maine employed such workers. For some businesses, such as small bed-and-breakfast inns, owners might employ a single foreign worker. But the larger inns employ many more.
“This is going to hurt,” Dugal said this week before the issue was resolved.
Maine businesses turn to foreign workers, he said, because the labor pool is too small to meet the demand of seasonal workers. In Ogunquit, for example, there are 1,000 residents but 2,200 rooms to fill. Even during the recession, there were not enough local workers to fill the jobs, the innkeeper executive director said.
According to an annual report filed by the U.S. Department of Labor for the year ending Sept. 30, 2013, 1,000 jobs in Maine were certified to be filled under the H-2B program. The largest number of jobs certified were in Ogunquit at 219 and Bar Harbor at 198. The most common job was housecleaning at 396, cooks at 108, forestry at 93, landscaping at 64 and waiters/waitresses at 48. The average pay for the 1,000 workers was $9.78 per hour, according to the federal report.
Allyson Cavaretta, director of sales and marketing for the Meadowmere Resort in Ogunquit, has employed 15 to 18 foreign workers for housekeeping and cooking at the 144-room inn. She said last week what was most frustrating to her is that the process of obtaining H-2B permits for temporary foreign workers is a lengthy one and that she was at the final step when the federal government stopped processing applications.
Sarah Diment, co-owner of the Beachmere Inn in Ogunquit, said last week she was seeking to employ six foreign workers for housekeeping. These jobs are the most difficult to fill, she said.
“I hate to say I have every finger and toe crossed, but they are,” Diment said about her hope last week that the issue would be resolved.
Diment also was in the final stage of hiring workers when the court decision was issued. She said most of her foreign help is from Jamaica and often the same people come each summer.
The federal court case that halted the processing of applications by the Department of Labor arose from a case filed on behalf of Gabriel Perez of Palm Beach, Florida, who works as a busboy. He claimed in the lawsuit that the regulations must be developed by U.S. Immigration and not the Department of Labor. Perez challenged the department’s regulations, saying higher-paying jobs were being taken by foreign workers.
Chief U.S. District Court Judge M. Casey Rodgers agreed in his March 4 ruling.
The judge’s order is now on hold until April 15 to give the federal Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement, time to come up with a permanent solution.
U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King also issued a statement on Tuesday evening in reaction to the stay.
“We are pleased the Department of Homeland Security will resume the processing of visa applications. Not proceeding with the applications would have created tremendous economic hardship for businesses around the state, particularly within the tourism industry, and would have unnecessarily hurt the state’s economy. We will continue to work with the department to find a permanent fix to this problem and fight for Maine businesses that rely on H-2B workers.”