Maine’s tourism industry continues to struggle with a shortage of foreign workers, especially now that many of its seasonal workers have returned to school.
“What hurt [our business] this summer was the H-2B visa cap,” said Bob Smith, manager of the Sebasco Harbor Resort in Phippsburg, near Popham Beach. He planned to hire eight foreign workers to work through October, but their visas didn’t come through. “Those workers could have helped us at the beginning and end of the summer season. And this October is much stronger than average from the southern coast of Maine to Bar Harbor.”
H-2B visas are a staple in Maine tourism, supplying the industry with seasonal laborers, such as housekeepers and restaurant workers. In prior years, workers who returned to the same employer weren’t counted as part of an annual federal cap of 66,000 workers.
But the federal government limited access to H-2B visas this fiscal year by counting laborers who applied again after previously getting them. The Department of Homeland Security added another 15,000 visas in July, but only 11 Maine employers refiled the necessary paperwork for those, according to the Maine Department of Labor.
It can take four to six weeks to get the visas processed, too late, Smith said, for his and other tourist locales to benefit from them.
So far this year, 168 Maine hospitality employers had 1,911 H-2B visas approved, according to the Department of Labor. It could not specify how many were granted before the federal visa cap was reached in March or after the extra visas were made available nationally in July.
“We are concerned about the number of workers. The number of jobs available now and the number of people don’t match up,” said Diane Johanson, director of government affairs at the Maine Tourism Association. One in six Maine jobs is in tourism, some 106,000 in 2016 alone.
About 10 percent of the 77,000 employees in restaurant and lodging in the state are visa workers, according to the Maine Innkeepers and Restaurant Associations.
Leisure and hospitality employment rose this year, with July and August each up 4 percent over the same months in 2016. Employment typically nudges down in the fall, with 7,000 fewer jobs in October compared with September. Still, Smith and others said the workforce remains tight.
The Trump administration also has hinted that another program heavily used by Maine businesses, the J-1 visa for students, may be under scrutiny over concerns that people overstay their visas.
Smith said he’s worried about potential changes to the H-2B and J-1 programs that might curb employee numbers going forward.
“We already have commitments for weddings every weekend for next fall,” he said. “We can’t stop work on Labor Day. We need the visa situation straightened out.”