H-2B visa cap takes its toll

A number of foreign workers cannot return this year, and businesses struggle to adjust.

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Nancy's before open on a weekday. — Amanda Lucidi

General manager of Nancy’s in Oak Bluffs, Steve Ansara, lifts a door revealing Donovan’s Reef. A bartender dances to the music he’s pumping through his speakers, and sings along, pouring drinks to the rhythm. Frequent guests of Nancy’s know this familiar sight. It’s like any other day at Nancy’s, except Donovan isn’t pouring the drinks — he’s in Jamaica.

Donovan Clarke waits among the many seasonal workers who will not be returning to their jobs this summer. For Mr. Clarke, this will be the first time in over a decade he won’t be pouring frozen banana drinks at Donovan’s Reef.

“It’s not Donovan, but he’s doing a great job,” Ansara said of the bartender. “He’s very talented and he’s got his own personality, but if Donovan can get back here, there’s no question we’re going to put him back. He’s valuable just like everyone else we miss, just like our friends, like our family.”

Mr. Clarke travels from Jamaica every summer season because of his H-2B visa. The visa allows temporary nonagricultural workers employment in the U.S. But this year Congress failed to reauthorize the exemption for returning foreign workers as it had previously.

Petitions requesting foreign workers nationwide reached more than 50,000 during the first week of January — far higher than the cap of 33,000 allotted into the U.S. for summer employment.

“It makes no sense to me from an economic standpoint, from a standpoint of American jobs, American business — we could use the revenue,” U.S. Rep. Bill Keating said referring to the taxes that foreign workers would pay. “Revenue we need desperately to fund our budget. It’s unnecessary, and this is even with bipartisan support.”

Nancy’s lost half of its regular seasonal staff — cooks, waiters, dishwashers and others. For H-2B workers to be cleared, businesses are responsible for showing these people aren’t taking local jobs. And although they are hiring locally, employment and work flow has not compared. Once the season really gets moving, Mr. Ansara says, an average Saturday calls for serving more than 2,000 guests upstairs alone.

On Tuesday, Mr. Ansara, like a line leader, brings the first dozen customers of the day upstairs. A man wearing a baseball cap asks the hostess for deck seating for his group of 13 — arriving early to ensure the view of the harbor. Though it seems early to be busy, he’s already darting around from waitress to cook, ensuring everyone has what they need.

“Our kitchen staff, our head chef, our kitchen manager — they haven’t had a day off since we opened. They’re working open to close, every day since May 22,” Ansara said. “I’m working every day — luckily there’s a core group of people here, but it’s not sustainable.”

Across the street, Summercamp deals with similar issues. This year they’ve lost a third of their staff, H-2B workers stuck abroad. And not just at the owner’s property on-Island — the Lark hotel group employs foreign staff at several of its 18 properties.

General manager Tania Pereira says fortunately, Summercamp found a temporary solution. They’ve cultivated a group of workers who function similarly to freelancers, and have named them “masters of the miscellaneous.”

“They do a little bit of everything,” Ms. Pereira said. “Like when we have really crazy busy weekends, and we know we are in need, they float around to all the properties in need because you never know what, when, and why.”

Aside from the lack of staff, these seasonal businesses are forced to train large numbers of new employees. Mr. Ansara and Ms. Pereira expressed gratitude for the help, but noted a lot of time gets eaten by repeatedly training — especially during an already short season.

“It’s always brand-new, even though the operations are the same,” Ms. Pereira said.

Many of the H-2B workers come to Martha’s Vineyard during the off-seasons for jobs in their homeland, for example in Jamaica, where Mr. Clarke currently bartends. Ms. Pereira’s staff from Jamaica are reapplying at hotels where they are normally employed during the winter season.

Joe Badot, general manager of Harborside Inn, says he is in constant contact with his staff from Jamaica — some of whom have been working at the inn for more than 20 years.

“They’re really hurting,” Mr. Badot said.

Rep. Keating says he works on this issue year-round, and notes the language change regarding the returning-workers cap has harmful implications, even more so than businesses are already facing.

“If they adopt this foolish posture on this issue, then they can really do some permanent damage,” Rep. Keating said. By reducing demand, there will be long-term implications. “They’ll lose revenue on a permanent basis,” he said.