The 2,000 foreign workers stuck in limbo since March might be able to work in Maine this summer after all.
On Wednesday, the American Hotel and Lodging Association released a statement that Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly is committed to expand the number of temporary visas allocated for seasonal workers to alleviate workforce demands in the heart of the tourist season.
Though there is no telling yet whether Maine, one of the hardest hit states by the cap in the H2-B program, will be included, Maine Restaurant Association and Maine Innkeepers Association CEO Steve Hewins is optimistic crucial hospitality jobs will be filled this summer.
Congress has set an annual cap of 66,000 nationwide H2-B visas, with caps of 33,000 in the first half of the fiscal year and 33,000 in the second half.
The applications of about 2,000 foreign workers seeking seasonal employment in Maine were stuck in the pipeline once the country hit that cap earlier this year. Hewins suggested he’s hopeful those workers can be freed up to help fill vacancies in Maine’s tourist destinations.
“I can’t imagine Maine wouldn’t be on the list (of places to receive more visas). We are leaders in the industry,” Hewins said when reached Thursday by phone at a conference in Chicago, where his industry peers in New England were discussing the topic.
The shortage of cooks, chambermaids and front desk staff, among other seasonal positions, has hampered hoteliers and restaurateurs from Kittery to Eastport this season. Freezing visas for skilled workers on top of record low unemployment here has forced some inns to close off sections and turn guests away.
More news could be released this week, Hewins said.
“While we don’t yet know all the details, and this is several months later than we had hoped, there is still time to have a positive impact on at least part of our peak visitor season,” Hewins said in a statement.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who has been a leading voice to ease the cap and alleviate labor shortages for Maine’s top industry, is hopeful but is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“Maine businesses are already behind schedule in hiring workers because of the government’s failure to move in a timely manner and every passing day only further jeopardizes their ability to keep their doors open, support American jobs, and contribute to the local economy,” he said in a prepared statement. “I will continue to work with the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security to see that these visas are allocated as quickly as possible.”