Island employers continue to struggle staffing their businesses due to the H-2B visa cap. Last year under the Trump administration, the number of seasonal foreign workers allowed in the country dropped to 33,000 from over 80,000 the previous year.
An additional 15,000 H-2B visas were granted by the Department of Homeland Security over the weekend, but it is yet to be determined whether this increase will help businesses on Martha’s Vineyard.
“It’s inadequate,” Congressman Bill Keating told The Times. According to Keating, the cap increase represents only about 30 percent of the demand for foreign workers. “That number has been determined by the Department of Labor,” Keating said. “It’s not arbitrary.”
The cap was introduced as an effort to protect American workers, and keep American citizens employed, but instead resulted in staff shortages for seasonal places whose economies rely on seasonal help.
H-2B visas are temporary permits that allow foreign workers to come to the United States and work temporarily in nonagricultural jobs. They are specifically intended for seasonal, peak-load help that is needed at many Vineyard businesses.
Nancy’s Restaurant and Snack Bar is one of the many Island businesses that have felt the weight of the H-2B visa cap. According to manager Steve Ansara, they’ve been understaffed for the past three summers. Under the Obama administration, during its last term, the H-2B visa program terminated its returners’ exemption, which allowed visa holders who had already been approved in the past five years to return to their existing positions without counting toward the cap number.
On Jan. 1, Nancy’s was one of about 78,000 other applicants to apply for H-2B visas to staff its business for the summer. None of Nancy’s applications were approved, and with the additional 15,000 visas granted over the weekend, Ansara still isn’t convinced they will be.
“We’re not banking on it,” he said. “It’d be really nice if it came through for us, but if the same number of people are still looking for H-2Bs as they were Jan. 1, there’s a slim shot we get it. We’re certainly not counting on it.”
Swordfish Enterprises, comprised of the Beach Plum Inn, Home Port Restaurant, and Menemsha Inn, has also experienced staffing struggles due to the H-2B cap.
“Last year was horrible,” general manager Joel Sheveck said. Sheveck looks to foreign workers for housekeepers, prep cooks, and line cooks.
“We just hired a new chef at the Home Port, but I hardly have any staff for him,” Sheveck said.
He’s also not counting on the additional 15,000 visas to do much to help the situation this summer: “It’s going to be another lottery.”
Nancy’s uses its H-2B visas to staff cooks and dishwashers. Since the returning work exemption was tossed, and the Trump administration took over, they’ve had to make a number of changes.
“We’re a seafood restaurant that can’t get enough staff to do raw oysters,” Ansara said.
Nancy’s has done away with its raw bar, has to turn over staff halfway through the season due to employees being tired, and has increased its use of paper products because there aren’t enough dishwashers to keep up with reusable tableware.
“We’re working seven days a week, and no one has a day off,” Ansara said. “There’s just not enough people out here to support these positions.”
Ansara hopes Donovan Clarke, the Nancy’s employee from Jamaica who’s usually mixing drinks behind Donovan’s Reef, will arrive by the Fourth of July.
Fat Ronnie’s Burger Bar in Oak Bluffs has struggled with staffing for the past two seasons. Since opening in April, they’ve had to close for a total of one week because they don’t have the staff. They’ve also had to close every night at 10 pm when they’re supposed to be open until 1 am. The restaurant has stopped serving breakfast completely.
“In addition to all of that, I’m paying overtime up the wazoo because I just don’t have the staff,” owner Reynaldo (Ronnie) Faust told The Times. “It’s a whole trickling-down effect. My workers can only work so much.”
According to Keating, Congress will continue to urge Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Niesen to increase the cap again. He’s working with a coalition of 89 members on both sides of the aisle to raise the cap, especially for returning H-2Bs. Keating said another increase could be seen by July.
“It all equates to the bottom line. If you’re not open, you can’t make money,” Faust said. “It’s easy math.”