OGUNQUIT, Maine — Local business owners, who were worried they may not have the help of seasonal workers needed to get them through the busy tourist months, learned some welcome news last week.
The Department of Homeland Security agreed to immediately resume processing of H-2B visas for seasonal workers, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, announced. The processing of these visas, which allow local businesses to bring in workers from foreign countries to fill seasonal jobs they are unable to fill locally, was put on hold last week following a federal court order.
“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 Department of Homeland Security stated Tuesday that it will “resume adjudicating H-2B petitions based on temporary labor certifications” issued by the Department of Labor. Officials said a temporary injunction filed with the judge in the Florida case will allow them to keep processing visas until April 15, by which time they hope to have new regulations in place that will provide a permanent solution to the problem.
Over recent days, businesses have spoken of the importance of the H-2B visa program to the tourism industry and wrote letters, alongside area Chambers of Commerce, to Maine’s congressional delegation. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins last week sent letters to the U.S. Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security asking that the processing of H-2B applications resume immediately.
Pingree said Tuesday that she wrote to the Secretaries of Labor and Homeland Security asking them to find a way to resume issuing the visas after the federal court decision.
“This is very good news for now. We’re talking about the H-2B visas that are already in the chute, so to speak, that will be processed and sent forth. When this originally started we thought we were going to be looking at a four- to eight-week delay. I think this is better than we could have imagined. The good thing is our delegation got right on top of it,” said Karen Arel, president of the Ogunquit Chamber of Commerce. “To have all three of them on board was huge and I believe that made a big difference.”
Each year, the federal government issues 66,000 H-2B visas for temporary, non-agricultural workers who fill mostly seasonal jobs.
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.
Allyson Cavaretta, general manager at The Meadowmere, said the resort 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.
Cavaretta says the H-2B visa program has strict regulations, and is designed to help fill positions that businesses cannot fill with local applicants. She said she advertises 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.”
Diment said news of the H-2B visa suspension had reached Jamaica, where her housekeepers come from. She heard from a number of her workers who rely on their jobs at the inn to support their entire families for the year. They were worried, she said, “because there are no jobs for them there.”
Diment also said that her local housekeeping team was in “panic mode” last week. 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 may not file for foreign workers more than 120 days before the date that they need those workers to start, according to the Department of Labor.
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.
News that processing of H-2B visas would resume is promising, Cavaretta said. She said businesses are still awaiting clarification on whether things will run as smoothly as needed.
“It would be nice to know confidently that every department that needs to touch these things is on board and will keep things moving,” she said. “I’m cautiously optimistic, which is something I couldn’t say 24 hours ago. I know our senators and Congresswoman Pingree are keeping an eye on things and will be there to jump in if there are still hurdles.
“I think the time when I will really exhale is when they’re here and I can give them a hug and we’re all working side by side again.”
Now, businesses and local Chamber of Commerce leaders say they’d like to see a permanent solution to the H-2B issues that arose.
“We continue to deal with this year after year. They need to say, ‘Look these foreign workers are important. There aren’t enough local workers to fill those spots,’” Arel said. “When we look at the players involved on our side, I think they will do something. They realize it is important and they will do what they can to effect change.”
Laura Dolce, executive director of the Kennebunk-Kennebunkport-Arundel Chamber of Commerce, said while Tuesday’s announcement is a resolution for this year, it is a temporary one.
“It’s great for now but we clearly need to find some kind of permanent solution,” she said. “While we have a temporary answer which will help us get through this season, we definitely don’t have a permanent solution and we will rely on our lawmakers to help make that happen.”