H2-B stalemate vexes businesses
With no sign of compromise in the political stalemate over immigration issues in Congress, many Island businesses have all but given up hope that the foreign workers they depend on will return this summer. Attempts by New England lawmakers to extend an exemption or increase the limit on H2-B visas for seasonal foreign workers have fallen victim to the hot button issue of national immigration reform in the hyper-partisan atmosphere of presidential politics.
"I’m a whiz at laundry," said Peter Martell, owner of the Wesley Hotel in Oak Bluffs, as he contemplates filling in night shifts because of a shortage of workers. "I’m going to be doing laundry and making beds. That’s the way it is, everybody works." Mr. Martell employed four foreign workers on H2-B visas last year, but none will be returning to the Island this summer. He has managed to hire two students on special student visas this year who will be able to legally remain in the United States for four months, including travel time.
Susan Goldstein, co-owner of the Mansion House in Vineyard Haven, says five Jamaican nail technicians who have worked at the Mansion House Spa for several years will not be able to return this summer.
"We had gotten a preliminary yes, then when it came time for follow up, we didn’t get it," said Ms. Goldstein. "I’m not optimistic about H2-B visas, that’s a political quagmire."
Though Ms. Goldstein advertised over a much wider area, and used new sources of advertising, she has so far been unable to replace any of the foreign workers. With the summer season fast approaching she is left with little but her inherent optimism.
"Certainly our first choice is to find local workers with roots on the Vineyard, that’s always our first choice," said Ms. Goldstein. "So far we have not found anyone with the required certification. We do have someone commuting part-time from Falmouth, but that won’t go through the summer. I’m hopeful that once again the magic in the water on the Vineyard will make us attractive to someone with the proper certification."
Darren Morris, general manager of Transit Connection, Inc., the company that contracts to hire and train workers for the Vineyard Transit Authority, says he has increased salaries and stepped up recruiting, but is still finding it very difficult to replace the 14 foreign workers who drove buses for the Island’s public transportation system last summer.
"We’re making progress, but it’s going to be a struggle. Our expenses are going to be higher due to overtime," said Mr. Morris. "The starting wage is up to $16 an hour, that’s not bad money. We try to make it attractive."
Mr. Morris says he does not expect to cut scheduled bus service, but may have to curtail back-up service used in past years to handle overflows. "It might mean that the buses are fuller and it takes a little longer to move everybody," he said.
Many seasonal Island businesses have relied in recent years on foreign workers who enter the country legally on H2-B visas. This year almost all of them were caught in a bureaucratic Catch 22 in which they were not legally allowed to apply for the visas until well after they were all taken. The number of visas is capped at 66,000 per year by the federal government. An exemption for returning workers, who were not counted against the cap, was not renewed by Congress.
Political observers say the Hispanic Caucus, an informal group of about 21 lawmakers in Congress, has effectively blocked the exemption as well as any increase in the limit on H2-B visas. The influential group has adopted a political strategy of holding out for comprehensive immigration reform, and has succeeded in blocking most attempts to address regional or local immigration issues.
Congressman William Delahunt, whose district includes Martha’s Vineyard, sees little hope of a compromise, and is focusing his effort on resolving the dispute by next summer. "We’re talking thousands of small businesses around the country that are being punished," said Mark Forest, chief of staff for Rep. Delahunt. "Many people are going to have to shed jobs. There will be an economic loss."
"They’re killing us in the process," said Mr. Martell. "They don’t realize the damage they’re doing, or they don’t care." He says trying to comply with federal immigration law, while navigating complex, expensive, and time-consuming visa regulations, leaves him frustrated.
"You get creamed," said Mr. Martell. "There is no way around the rules. They need to raise the quota from 66,000 to 150,000. Then maybe we would have a chance."
Citing the expiration of a federal policy that helped the hospitality industry keep summertime help, state officials announced Tuesday that they’ll hold a pair of job fairs to help Cape and Islands employers recruit workers from high schools, colleges and the Fall River and New Bedford areas.
Wendy Northcross, CEO of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, said this week, "The Cape Cod and Islands visitor industry generates over $2 billion in direct spending by guests who travel here year-round. The looming worker shortages created by changes in the immigration visa rules could potentially impact our visitor industry, which is very dependent upon guest workers to fill our seasonal workforce needs."
The first job fair is set for today, from 9 am to 5 pm at White’s of Westport, in Westport, and the second for Monday, April 14, from 1 to 5 pm, at the Career Opportunities Career Center, 372 North Street, Hyannis.