Seasonal businesses up and down the Maine coast and in Seacoast New Hampshire are gearing up for another busy summer, cobbling together a workforce that includes not only local and more far-flung American employees but also workers from countries around the world who are able to make a decent wage to send home to their families.
For the heavily tourist-dependent businesses in coastal York County, these foreign workers include those who come here through the federal H-2B program. This program brings workers in the hospitality, landscaping and fishing industries to the United States from April to October, a crucial time in southern Maine.
And it is a program bursting at the seams. On Jan. 1 of this year, the first day employer applications could be filed, the Department of Labor received 81,600 applications for 33,000 available summer-season visas. These workers are considered an integral part of many hiring strategies, particularly now with a booming economy that can make it difficult to find homegrown workers, said Joe Lipton, who owns the Stone’s Throw restaurant and motel as well as the Viewpoint hotel in York Beach.
“Unemployment is low and there’s no workforce housing,” Lipton said. “If we didn’t have H-2B visas, the whole Seacoast would be affected. Around here, there just aren’t enough people to work these jobs.”
John Patten of Patten Grounds Care in Ogunquit, who seasonally hires 23 Jamaican workers, agrees. “No one wants to mow our lawns, pick our vegetables, clean our hotels and change our beds,” he said. “It’s very stressful if your business depends on this labor. If you can’t get them, then you have to scale back or even go out of business. We shouldn’t have to lie awake at night worrying if we’re going to get these guys in.”
Few local businesses received all the H-2B workers they wanted for this summer due to the glut of applications, said Greg Dugal, director of government affairs for the Maine Innkeepers Association. And while it’s likely additional visas could be forthcoming in the near future, the application process takes as long as six to eight weeks, said Dugal, so workers would be arriving on the cusp of July 4.
Add another layer of complexity, he said. Although the program has been around for nearly 80 years, in the last couple of years it has been tinged with immigration politics, he said. Congress sets the cap for the number of H-2B visas at 66,000 — 33,000 each for the winter and summer season. While industries affected by the H-2B visas have been lobbying to increase the cap, efforts have been unsuccessful, he said.
“This administration has shown disdain for the H-2B program,” he said. In addition, Immigration Committee members “don’t want to see any changes in the cap for various reasons, some Republican and some Democrats. It puts us in a position to grovel for what we can. It’s no way to run a candy counter.”
Involved, expensive process
Allyson Cavaretta, director of sales and marketing at Meadowmere Resort in Ogunquit, said employers like her do not make the decision to hire H-2B workers lightly. The application processing fee is $1,500 per employee, and employers agree to fly workers back and forth to Maine.
Paperwork turned in to the Department of Labor includes proof an employer has looked locally and even nationally for American workers, to no avail, as well as proof why these positions are crucial to the smooth running of the business. “It’s a highly arduous journey and it should be,” she said, because the American government wants to assure citizens have the first opportunity.
“H-2B workers are part of many different components to working in the seasonal industry in Maine,” she said. “Because of low unemployment, you get to realize we just don’t have enough people.”
Meadowmere, for example, employs 35 year-round employees — nowhere near enough to handle all facets of running a 144-room resort, she said. The company also hires seasonal J1 visa workers — through another federal program that allows foreign college students to come to the United States during “the very peak of peaks in the summer, because they’re only here for 90 days. High school and college students are the cherry on top of the icing. H-2B workers are here for seven months. That allows us to capitalize on our shoulder seasons.”
That’s key to businesses that must make the most out of the warmer months. For example, of the 33,000 visas given out annually for summer H-2B workers, Maine businesses receive 2,500 to 2,800 — 8 percent or more. And Patten said he could use many more than he receives.
“These are good workers. They show up on time, they’re nice guys and they are willing to work overtime,” he said. “And they pay Social Security and unemployment tax that they’re never going to collect and will go to some American. I need those 23 Jamaicans to do my business. If they didn’t show up, it would cut my business in half.”
In past years, the exact time an employer applied on Jan. 1 marked the time his or her application was placed in the queue. This year, said Cavaretta, there were so many applications Jan. 1 that at the end of February, the federal government conducted a lottery for the first time — without any prior notice and without giving an advantage to those who applied at, say at midnight, as opposed to 6 a.m. Jan. 1.
Meadowmere received 8 of 20 visas for which it applied. Joe Lipton applied for 20 workers and secured visas for 12. Both were able to secure extensions for some H-2B workers in the United States on a winter visa.
“We are deciding to close for breakfast Monday through Friday because we’re short-staffed,” Lipton said. “That’s crazy. If you’re in the hospitality business you want to expand, not contract. But you can’t.”
In the omnibus spending package that passed Congress in late March, there was a provision to allow the Department of Homeland Security to release more visas above the cap. Last year, 15,000 additional visas were forthcoming but not until July, so workers did not arrive until the waning days of the summer season. This year, employers are awaiting word as to when, how many and under what conditions additional visas are available.
“It’s extremely disappointing to see the process drag out unnecessarily,” said U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine. She said it appears as if the DHS will be making an announcement on additional visas soon, “but 15,000 visas would be woefully inadequate to meet the demand. While the reasons behind the administration’s decision are ideological, the consequences are economic.”
She and other members of Maine’s congressional delegation point to the fact the spending bill passed in March but additional visas have still not been released.
“We are concerned that the release of the additional H-2B visas could be insufficient or untimely,” said U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King in a joint statement. “We have worked to increase significantly the cap on the number of visas, and we wrote to leaders of the Department of Homeland Security and Labor urging them to quickly process these visas. We will continue to press the administration to keep the needs of Maine employers and workers in mind.”
Meanwhile as she waits word, said Cavaretta, there’s a summer business to run. “Right now, we sit in limbo,” she said. “How does this help a small business like mine? How do they get relief to us?”
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