Visitors we can't do without
Without last-minute action by federal legislators so far from the Cape and Islands that they neither understand nor care about the realities of business here, 2008 may be remembered as the year when the Vineyard's seasonal boom-and-bust economy finally went bust.
With summer looming, the Cape and Islands have been caught in the crossfire of a jingoistic, xenophobic duel of sound bites in a distant arena - the federal debate over immigration reform. After the U.S. Congress failed to agree on a comprehensive fix for our nation's immigration policies, the caucus of Hispanic legislators, justifiably angered, vowed to block any immigration bills they view as "piecemeal" patches. One such measure would have continued a federal policy that allows for return visits by some 50,000 urgently needed foreign seasonal workers under the federal H-2B program.
Nationally, 50,000 workers is a minuscule number. But our little corner of America relies heavily for its economic livelihood, each tourist season, on this modest federal program: One out of every seven returning H-2B workers in the United States last year came to work on the Cape and Islands.
The Vineyard newspapers, the Cape Cod Times and the Boston Globe have all reported on the crisis now facing businesses for which the H-2B program has been a critical lifeline for summer help. But it doesn't take much digging into the facts of the situation to come away with a sense that the Island public scarcely grasps the train wreck proportions of the problems in store this summer.
Vineyard business owners are saying that mid-February - next week - is the latest that relief from the U.S. government will make any real difference for them. The application process for H-2B workers requires, among other things, documentary proof that an employer has made good faith efforts to hire locally - and all that paperwork takes about three months.
Meanwhile, Mark Forrest, aide to 10th District Congressman William Delahunt, has been quoted as saying his office is exploring every possible angle, but that given the current climate in Washington, the prospects for relief this summer are dim. "We urge people to work on a Plan B while we try to work this out," he told the Cape Cod Times.
The problem is that, for Martha's Vineyard, there may not be a Plan B.
The extremes of the seasonal business cycle place huge stresses on the Vineyard community. Last year, according to figures from the state Department of Workforce Development, unemployment in Dukes County ranged from 7.7 percent in January to just 1.8 percent in August. The Vineyard is maxed out, operating on the thin edge, during its peak business season, and the loss of H-2B workers threatens to tip the situation from difficult to undoable.
Critics of the H-2B program are inclined to blame the employers (the adjective "greedy" is a favorite), suggesting that if they paid better wages for the workers who change the sheets, wash the dishes, drive the buses, and punch the cash registers, there'd be no need for imported labor. But in fact Island employers are already paying better wages - sometimes dramatically so.
According to data gathered this winter for the livelihood and commerce workgroup of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, Island employers in 2006 paid 19 percent above the state average for workers in the retail sector. In the hotel and restaurant sector, Island employers paid 46 percent above the state average. In arts, entertainment, and recreation, Island employers paid 86 percent more than the state average. It's enough to make you wonder: how much more can employers pay the people who manicure the nails, launder the towels, and scrub the hotel bathtubs before their rates surpass what visitors are willing to pay?
Good numbers on the scope of the Island's H-2B workforce are hard to come by. The state reports that in fiscal 2006, 612 employers applied to bring 5,676 workers to the Cape and Islands; no breakout figures for Dukes County are available. But the selectmen of Provincetown recently took the unusual step of surveying businesses, and concluded that 461 workers were brought to their town last year by the H-2B program. And because guest workers come here for one reason only - to earn money - there's a powerful multiplier effect, as most of them work two or more jobs during their months stateside.
It's ironic that the H-2B program should be a casualty of the overheated national debate over illegal immigration, because the hard-working people this program brings to the Vineyard are neither illegal nor immigrants. What they are is essential. And what the Island faces this summer is a historic meltdown that threatens to pit Island businesses against each other in a scramble for employees as the shortage of available labor passes the critical point.