The person serving your coffee is from Ukraine. Your cabdriver is from Bulgaria. The girl getting your takeout order is from Nigeria. The workforce on the Vineyard, particularly in the retail and the hospitality sectors, looks like a huge Benetton ad.
Back in the day, these positions would have been filled with American college kids looking to earn some cash and spend some time at the beach. But today the “season” on the Vineyard extends well into the fall, and most college students have to head back to school in mid-August, leaving Island businesses in the lurch.
Foreign students, able to work several months and eager to improve their English skills, have filled the void. But it’s also added another layer of work and anxiety to running an Island business. Not only do businesses have to find suitable workers, there are visas to deal with, lots of federal compliance issues, and local housing to find.
Foreign workers have to have one of two types of visa. The J-1 work visa allows foreign workers under 28 years old with a working knowledge of English to come to the U.S. with three months’ work time and one month’s travel time. These workers are often college students. One of the benefits of hiring J-1s is that they often get housing subsidies from their country of origin.
The H-2B work visa is good for nine months, and can be renewed for up to three years. This visa is generally for workers who have a specific skill, perhaps a chef or a bartender.
The Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown employs nearly 200 people in the summer, 60 percent of whom are from abroad. General manager Andrew Bartlett explained that at this point these foreign workers are all on J-1 visas, but they’re looking into perhaps hiring H-2Bs in the future. The hotel hires in two shifts — one starting in June and going through mid-summer, and then another shift to go through the fall.
They use an agency called Intrax to do the hiring and handle the paperwork. Personal interviews are conducted on Skype.
“The process can be unpredictable,” said Mr. Bartlett; “everything can be all set and then at the last minute a visa can be denied. Also, some countries don’t want kids — especially really bright kids who are seniors in college — to come to the U.S. because they’re afraid they might want to stay, so they can withhold a visa.”
Roland George, general manager of Winnetu on Katama, said that they’re able to hire local Vineyard kids or kids whose parents have a summer house on the Island as counselors for their Kids Club, but they rely heavily on foreign workers for the rest of their staff. They hire H-2Bs for skill-specific jobs like cooks and servers, and J-1 kids for more general jobs, such as working at the front desk or driving a shuttle.
Winnetu also partners with resorts in the South or in Western ski areas, so people on an H-2B visa can work three months here, then three months at another resort, and then come back in the summer. And like the Harbor View Hotel, Winnetu uses an outside agency to facilitate its hiring.
The Net Result fish market in Vineyard Haven has workers from Macedonia, Nigeria, Moldavia, and Ukraine, in addition to Japanese workers in its sushi bar, but the sushi business is sublet from someone who deals with the staffing. “In general, they’re really good workers,” said Louie Larsen, owner of Net Result. “Sometimes one of them will come up to me and say, ‘Mr. Louie’ — they call me Mr. Louie — ‘what’s wrong, are you having a bad day?’ And I’ll say it’s because you’re talking so loud, you have to to keep it down. A lot of time they think they have to talk loudly to make a point.”
Mr. Larsen said that all their foreign workers are J-1s. They tried to get H-B2 workers, but they could never get through all the bureaucracy.
Hiring foreign workers can certainly be a challenge for local businesses, but it can pale in comparison with trying to find them housing.
“We’re having an employee crisis on the Vineyard because of housing. Our workforce is stretched, but housing is impeding our ability to retain staff,” said Nancy Gardella, executive director of Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce.
The Harbor View and Winnetu both rent houses for their employees. The Winnetu assigns a senior staff member to oversee the homes. They provide Internet and Wi-Fi so the kids can be in touch with their families, and wild parties are strictly forbidden; they want to be sensitive to their neighbors.
The Net Result has actually gone so far as to buy two houses for its staff: one for males in Edgartown and one for females in Vineyard Haven.
And Maggie Mae, owner of Maggie’s Salon in Vineyard Haven, has actually opened up the doors of her home to accommodate staff.
She hired a Jamaican woman five years ago to work in her salon who was able to stay with a friend, and then later rented a room. But when that got too expensive, Maggie couldn’t afford to pay her more, so this year she’s staying in Maggie’s house, along with the woman’s husband, who does landscaping for her.
While researching this article, I couldn’t help wondering: Given all that’s going on in the world today, how does everyone from all these far-flung countries get along? Everyone I spoke with said there wasn’t a problem — everyone seemed to get along just fine. Or as Megan Freitas, general manager of 20byNine restaurant in Oak Bluffs, said, “All the nationalities seem to get together — they actually seem to bond.”