Forecast for summer labor force clouded with uncertainty

Foreign workers may be in short supply due to changes in visa quotas and immigration policies.

Restaurants, such as Upstairs at Nancy's might find it challenging to find staff this summer. — File photo by Susan Safford

Business owners on Martha’s Vineyard, already faced with a gauntlet of obstacles when it comes to to turning a profit, may find themselves even more challenged this summer when it comes to staffing. With the Trump administration making immigration a touchstone issue, and one Executive Order already throwing the system into upheaval, employers who rely on foreign workers here on J-1 and H2B visas are concerned.

On the campaign trail, President Trump vowed to end the J-1 visa program. In one of the presidential debates, he said, “It’s something that I frankly use, and I shouldn’t be allowed to use it. We shouldn’t have it. Very, very bad for workers … Terminating the program will force companies to recruit from among the existing American workforce.”

President Trump hasn’t taken action on J-1 or H2B visas since taking office, but that could change with the swipe of a presidential pen. According to Democratic Congressman Bill Keating, representative from the Cape and Islands, who spoke to The Times on Wednesday, there is a draft Executive Order that could delay all J-1 visas 90 days to “evaluate security procedures.”

“It’s just a draft, it hasn’t been submitted yet,” Representative Keating said. “A lot of people, including myself, are waiting to see what happens, anxiously. Many of our workers are from Eastern Europe, so we’re hoping it doesn’t get traction. What I find surprising is, the president knows these programs and has used them extensively in his business. It’s baffling.”

Since the start of President Trump’s campaign in June 2015, companies he owns have requested at least 190 foreign-visa workers, according to Department of Labor data.

Tina Miller, proprietor of Rosewater Market in Edgartown, told The Times on Tuesday that ripples of possible changes from the new administration are being felt across the pond. “I spoke to one of my J-1 employees yesterday; she got her visa, but she said only two out of the 20 people at the [Bulgarian] embassy got approved,” Ms. Miller said. “She said there was a lot of crying.”

Employers who rely on H2B workers have new reason for concern. Until this year, “returning workers” on H2B visas were not counted against the national quota of 66,000 per fiscal year — 33,000 for workers in the first half of the fiscal year, and 33,000 for workers in the second half of the fiscal year. This year, the “returning worker” provision is gone, the result of a vote along partisan lines in Congress.

“In the past 11 years, they raised the cap [on H2B visas] four times,” Representative Keating said. “Last fall we tried to get the [returning-worker exemption] language in to the continuing resolution, and it came to a vote on appropriations, and went on partisan lines, unfortunately. All the Democrats supported raising the cap, all but one of the Republicans opposed it.”

According to the Department of Labor, there were 84,627 H2B visas issued in 2016. Without the returning-worker exemption, almost 19,000 jobs would have gone unfilled in seasonal U.S. businesses.

“Why would someone be against improving the economy and more revenue in the United States?” Representative Keating said. “This is not really an immigration issue, this is a small business issue. It defies common sense. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but that’s what it’s been.”

Representative Keating said there will be another shot at restoring the returning-worker clause in April, and he and his Democratic cohorts have been working the backbenches for support.

This year, there’s another factor working against seasonal business owners on the Vineyard and throughout the Northeastern U.S. A spokesman from the Department of Labor told The Times that H2B visa applications in the first week of January, typically the busiest week of the year, were up 93 percent over the same week in 2016. Employers can only hire H2B workers 90 days before their start date, so the supply of workers can be significantly diminished when Cape and Island businesses start hiring for May.

“I understand their frustration,” Representative Keating said. “Seeing how strong the economy is in my district, and where I live on the Cape, we’re experiencing a surge, and we need workers to do this. These workers are not taking jobs from Americans. The labor force is tapped out.”

The news isn’t all bad. Representative Keating said that to date, the visa application process has worked much more smoothly than it did last year, which he described as “traumatic.” In 2016 visa delays were legion, in large part because applications had skyrocketed, overwhelming the Department of Labor Office of Foreign Labor Certification (OFLC) and Department of Homeland Security offices. Adding to the mayhem, the national processing center for applications in Chicago was shut down for 17 days due to technology malfunctions.

“We worked directly with [Labor] Secretary Perez, and we took suggestions from our chambers [of commerce] and local businesses directly to them, and they implemented many of the suggestions we had from the people in our district.” Representative Keating said. As a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Representative Keating said, he’s been working with embassies abroad to iron out past difficulties with the application process.

“My office also has two full-time staffers who work on this issue year-round,” he said. “This is a big issue for us. We need these workers because the economy in our district is doing so well we’ve exhausted the local labor force. This is also a national issue.”

Closer to home

J-1 and H2B workers have become increasingly important in the Vineyard business community over the past two decades, as college students arrive later, leave earlier, and according to some business owners, lack the work ethic of the foreign workers.

“I love my J-1’s,” Ms. Miller said. “They’re smart, they work hard, and they bring a good attitude. There’s no workforce on the Island, especially in the restaurant business.”

Jo Maxwell, co-owner of Chesca’s Restaurant in Edgartown, said she only hires J-1 workers to supplement her staff. “Everybody here uses J-1s to some extent,” she said. “This year we have 14 J-1 employees.”

Ms. Maxwell said she stopped hiring H2B workers several years ago. “The process is very complicated, it’s a 30-page application, you have to advertise to prove you’re not displacing an American who wants the job,” she said. “You’re not guaranteed you’ll get someone, even if you pay an extra couple thousand to an attorney to ‘expedite’ the process. The last year we did it we didn’t have someone approved until September, a month before we closed, and we started the process in January. It just became too risky and too expensive.”

Ms. Maxwell said although the application process for J-1 employees is much simpler, there are inherent limitations.

“Since they’re on a four-month visa, and one of those months is supposed to be for travel, when you open in May and close in October, they’re not here for when you open and they’re not here for when you close,” she said.

Restaurateur Jon “J.B.” Blau told The Times that foreign workers have become a necessity in the seasonal economy.

“We’re one of the last businesses to hire J-1s,” he said. “I’d prefer to be a 100 percent homegrown staff, but that’s not attainable anymore. Every year there’s a steady decline in American staff. We need people in May and September and October, and the J-1 program allows us to cover that. A lot of college kids say they’ll stay through Labor Day, and then leave in August. It’s amazing how many grandmothers die in August.”

Mr. Blau said he only adds J-1 visa workers to his staff. He said this year the process has gone smoothly, and he hired foreign workers after Skype interviews in December.

“We’re working with the J-1 program companies to do more advanced training on cultural differences and communication,” he said. “In a perfect world, we wouldn’t utilize the program. But Martha’s Vineyard is anything but perfect when it comes to an available labor force.”

Mark Snyder, co-owner of Winnetu Oceanside Resort in Edgartown, said he hires about 80 visa workers per summer, roughly 40 percent of his staff. “They’re a significant part of our operation,” he said. “Most have been coming to us for years; they’re wonderful people.”

Mr. Snyder said he’s found the annual application process consistently plagued with delays. “You have to go through a multi-tier process of approvals, and things run late every year,” he said. “The [H2B] cap issue causes us anxiety. It seems every year the number of applications increases and the cap doesn’t go up. They make it harder and harder.”

Doug Abdelnour, co-owner of Nancy’s Restaurant in Oak Bluffs, a favorite of President Obama and his family when they vacation here in August, said the restaurant hires both J-1 and H2B workers; some have been coming back for more than 10 years. He said the loss of the returning-worker exemption for H2B visas is particularly vexing. “We open so late, the quota could potentially be reached before we apply,” he said. “That definitely is a concern.”

Steven Ansara, manager at Nancy’s for the past six years, said so far the J-1 visa process has gone smoothly, but that “the H2B visa is going to run into issues this year for a lot of people. The loss of the returning-worker exemption is a big deal. A lot of people on the Cape and Islands depend on H2Bs. Theoretically, it could make the H2B program useless on the Cape and Islands and anywhere in New England. You’re competing with companies that can apply for workers on Jan. 1 and have the employees coming in March. It’s a scary situation.”

Mr. Ansara said the anxiety level in the industry, and with employees, is rising as the season approaches and Executive Orders fly out of the Oval Office.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize how dependent the service industry is in all of New England for this seasonal type of employment,” he said. “If there’s no returning-worker exemption, the average person is going to see a slip in service, because there’s just not enough Americans who are willing to do those types of jobs. It’s impossible to find a 17-year-old kid who will wash dishes for $14 an hour for 40 hours a week, especially on the Vineyard and Nantucket.”