Susan Bayley Clough is expecting a thriving summer tourism season, but fears she may have to close some of her businesses for a couple days a week or skip lunch services because there might not be enough workers.
The owner of four restaurants and a gift shop in Scarborough, including Bayley’s Lobster Pound, Clough said there has always been a shortage of foreign workers, but the pandemic has compounded the problem. Former President Donald Trump halted the foreign workers programs most used by Maine tourism businesses last year, but the administration of President Joe Biden is bringing them back, albeit slowly.
The Department of Homeland Security said it will provide 22,000 more H-2B foreign seasonal worker visas on top of the 66,000 set by Congress this year, but it’s not clear when those extra visas might become available and how many Maine businesses might get. Embassies that must approve the J-1 visas for cultural exchange workers are behind because they were closed much of last year.
The result is likely to be thousands fewer foreign workers than usual in the hospitality industry. It comes as the industry group HospitalityMaine estimates that lodging and food businesses collectively are short 16,000 workers. Maine usually gets about 2,500 H-2B and 5,000 J-1 visa workers annually, but likely will get only half that number this year, Greg Dugal, director of government affairs at HospitalityMaine, said. The H-2B visas are granted to businesses that apply for them through a federal lottery.
Bayley said she normally has 175 employees in a typical year, with up to 30 of them J-1 and H-2B visa workers. This year she applied for 13 H-2B visa workers and has only five so far, all from Jamaica, with the influx of tourists coming earlier in the year as pandemic restrictions are lifted.
“It pains me knowing that there are people who want to come in and be served, and that I may not be open some of the time,” said Bayley, who is the fourth generation in her family to run Bayley’s Lobster Pound. “But you have to do what you have to do to stay open.”
She isn’t alone in not getting enough visa-worker help. For the first time in its almost 60-year history, Funtown Splashtown USA in Saco said earlier this week that it will be open five rather than the usual seven days a week during the summer season because of a dearth of visa workers.
Even if the hoped-for workers are approved in a month or so, that might not be in time to be much help to struggling businesses. The application process is still up in the air for the additional H-2B workers. Bayley said if the situation drags on till the July 4 weekend, she won’t want more workers because her season is already half over.
Before the pandemic, visas would have been approved by mid-March and workers would have started to arrive in Maine in April, Dugal said. This year, they came in May. So far, workers have only come from Jamaica.
The H-2B program is expensive and the application is time-consuming, he said, so the businesses that go through the process really need the workers. He does not expect approvals to speed up soon, which could throw another wrench into the worker shortage.
“Some people are going to change their mind because they’re been waiting so long,” Dugal said. “All kinds of things can go wrong. This year is the worst, by far, that it’s ever been.”
Jean Ginn-Marvin, owner of the 109-room Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport, has set up an internal workforce development program so she doesn’t have to deal with what she sees as a volatile H-2B visa situation. But even with that program, she would like to hire a few more people locally this year, the busiest in her 23 years at the resort.
“It’s challenging year to year because you never know how many people you will be allowed to bring in,” she said of the lottery system.
Bob Smith, owner of the Sebasco Harbor Resort in Phippsburg, also opted to avoid the complications of the H-2B visa process, but he does hope to get 20 J-1 visa workers for housekeeping, dishwashing and other jobs that local workers tend not to want. He normally adds 14 to 22 J-1 visa workers among the close to 150 staff during the summer season.
“We haven’t been able to get any yet,” he said. “We’re still hoping we can get them.”
The H-2B program also requires that the business find housing for workers. Smith has housing for the workers at the resort, which has 128 bedrooms in 40 buildings, including cottages. He said other businesses may find it tough to find housing for workers because rentals are expensive and scarce.
Bayley has managed by offering dormitory rooms over one of the businesses and two rental homes she has, forgoing other income that she could generate by choice.
“I could rent the houses for quite a bit of money because they are right on the water,” she said. “Instead, I put employees there because I need them much more than I need the rental income.”
Correction: An earlier version of a photo caption made an incorrect reference to a seasonal worker.