Island businesses face labor shortage, as H-2B visa system is exhausted
Many Island business owners who rely on foreign workers for seasonal help this month found themselves caught in the crossfire of the emotional national debate over immigration reform.
The federal government notified businesses that the annual cap on the number of H-2B visas the government would issue for seasonal, non-agricultural workers was reached on Jan. 2. And Congress has so far taken no action to alleviate the problem or renew an exemption that would ease the rehiring of previous H-2B visa holders.
Many Cape and Islands businesses rely on the visa program, which allows employers to hire workers from abroad.
A shortage of seasonal workers has been a growing problem for the local tourism industry, but one development this year added a new dilemma for employers who want to hire seasonal workers from outside the United States.
An exemption in place since 2004 allowed seasonal workers who had received an H-2B visa to return from their home country to work in the United States and not be counted against the federal limit. That exemption expired and in the current political atmosphere Congress did not renew it.
"It's a disaster," said Peter Martell, owner of the Wesley Hotel in Oak Bluffs. "I haven't got a clue what I'll do at this point. It's beyond reason."
Mr. Martell has applied for visas for four returning workers, and five new people, mostly from Bulgaria. He is optimistic that business owners will put political pressure on Congress to provide legislative relief. But if that does not happen he says he and many Island business owners will have a very difficult time finding help.
"It's a serious gamble, and no guarantees," said Mr. Martell.
Nationwide, 66,000 visas are granted annually, split evenly in each half of the fiscal year which begins on July 1. For the last statistical period available, 623 different Massachusetts companies had a total of 6,610 H-2B visas approved, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Business owners usually apply for the visas and pay the costs on behalf of their workers. The business can only apply for the visas 120 days before the workers are needed. That leaves Vineyard employers caught in a classic "Catch 22" quirk of the federal bureaucracy. Businesses that need to add workers in June cannot apply for visas until February, well after they were notified the cap was reached.
"This year we got shut out," said Darren Morris, general manager of Transit Connection, Inc., the company that contracts to hire and train workers for the Vineyard Transit Authority.
In October, Mr. Morris started the complex process of documenting his need for workers, and certify his unsuccessful attempt to hire U.S. workers. The state of Massachusetts approved his documentation and sent it on to the federal Department of Labor at the end of November. He expects certification from the federal government this week, but says there is no sense in sending in his application for H-2B visas. "I'm already out of the water," he said.
Mr. Morris says the expiration of the returning workers exemption will prevent him from hiring about 14 employees who worked here last summer. "That's the one that's really going to hurt," he said. "We can't get any of our returning workers who want to come back. We hire anybody who is willing to work, but we usually get one or two people. We're trying to fill 20 positions."
The H-2B dilemma is already having an effect on Vineyard businesses. Susan Goldstein, co-owner of the Mansion House in Vineyard Haven, usually employs five women from Jamaica as nail technicians in the hotel's spa. She has invested time, training, and licensing fees in her employees, and they have developed a loyal clientele. Now they may not be able to return under H-2B visas. Ms. Goldstein says she has gone to great lengths to recruit American workers from on and off Island, with little success.
"If we were not able to obtain those visas, I would expand my search to try to replace them, but I would be very discouraged," said Ms. Goldstein. "I would be in trouble, perhaps even spend a ton of money recruiting. That would be an expense I would rather not take, after having developed a relationship and a friendship with these ladies. It would certainly make a difference in the services we could offer."
Business owners are coping with the labor shortage in a variety of ways, but all say it represents an added expense. Some pay overtime to existing workers. Others pick up part of the work themselves. All say they will expand their recruiting efforts, but many are skeptical, since they already go to extraordinary lengths to find workers.
Mr. Martell traveled to Bulgaria this past winter. Mr. Morris recruits on college campuses, and in Colorado ski resorts. Ms. Goldstein anticipates advertising far beyond the Cape and Islands to find workers.
Depending on the type of business, however, stop-gap measures are sometimes not an option. "We will find a way to provide the services safely," said Mr. Morris. "What it comes down do is you have to have safe drivers on the road. You can't have someone driving a bus 100 hours a week."
Politics and Policy
Immigration policy has sparked a volatile national debate, magnified by presidential primary politics.
Congressman William Delahunt, who represents the 10th Massachusetts district, including Martha's Vineyard, is working to restore the returning workers exemption.
"The immigration debate has poisoned the well, even for any modest immigration initiative," said Mark Forest, chief of staff for Rep. Delahunt. "It's a very modest and legitimate proposal, but there are many members (of Congress) who have blocked passage of it, who are arguing that we need comprehensive immigration reform. The climate on immigration is so volatile, that it has been very difficult."
Mr. Forest also questioned the political strategy of blocking immigration reform proposals for seasonal economies. "If we close off the options for legal immigration, you're only facilitating illegal immigration. It seems counterproductive," he said.
Mr. Forest says that convincing other members of Congress to support the returning workers exemption, or to increase the cap on H-2B visas, is a hard sell, politically. Relatively few states utilize seasonal foreign workers, and members who represent those other states, have little incentive to buck the political forces holding out for comprehensive immigration reform.
Mr. Forest says the best hope for relief rests with those most affected. "If we're not able to get the returning workers exemption, there will be quite a lot of anger in the business community," he said. "We're seeing business groups coming to Washington."
"I think it will happen at some point," said Mr. Martell. "There's a great swell of pressure being put on Congress."
Mr. Forest, while hopeful, says the prospects of Congress providing help for local business owners "aren't clear, given the overall climate the way it is."
Seth Miller, a Raynham attorney who specializes in immigration law for clients on the Cape and Islands, calls the situation horrific. "It's going to be an absolute nightmare," he said. "I have a feeling its going to force some places not to open, or if they do open, they'll have extremely poor service."