On March 31, former President Donald Trump’s ban on foreign workers lapsed. That would seem like a great thing for an Island that relies on those workers, but the prospect of foreign workers coming to the Island is still very much in flux.
“We’ve been working on this at all levels,” U.S. Rep. William Keating, D-Bourne, told The Times in a phone conversation. Keating has worked the phones with newly minted Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, but the prospects of getting workers on J-1 student visas or H-2B visas is not looking good, despite the Biden administration allowing the Trump ban on those workers to lapse.
“It’s too hard right now to flip the switch and change the procedure,” Keating said. “For next year, I made my pitch to just go back to the way Obama and Bush handled it, where you’re raising the returning worker cap. That just solves a multitude of problems.”
A key problem is that U.S. embassies in nations where foreign workers come from, in Eastern Europe, Ireland, and Jamaica, for example, aren’t able to process applications. “Embassies in other countries are either closed, semiclosed, or have skeleton crews,” Keating said. “That creates a problem. There’s a bottleneck there. That’s a significant problem. There will be some foreign workers, but not as many as we want.”
This all comes as the Vineyard and other tourist hot spots are expecting an influx of people with reservations for short-term rentals and hotels off the charts, Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, told The Times.
“We’re hearing from the real estate companies that the uptick in advance bookings is insane,” she said. “Even the hotels are hearing from people, and that’s good, because they were really hard-hit last year.”
Doug Abdelnour, who owns Nancy’s and Noman’s, told The Times that without foreign workers, he’ll need to fill roughly 40 positions for Nancy’s. At Noman’s, he’s also short on workers, but that’s not as desperate a situation as what he’ll face at Nancy’s.
Problem is, there are not many people applying for those jobs, and in some instances, some individuals who return to the Island each summer to work at his Oak Bluffs waterfront restaurant can’t find housing this year.
Even if some of the foreign workers were to come to the Island, Abdelnour doesn’t know where he’d find them a place to stay. “I just cannot find housing anywhere,” he said.
All of which points to the perfect storm for the Island’s business community — an epic summer and not enough employees to fill the jobs.
Abdelnour said he spent a few weeks in Florida at flight school, and saw the thirst people had for vacations. Not only were there spring breakers, but he also saw families with young children on vacation. “We’re in for a busy summer this season,” he said.
Bernard Chiu, owner of the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown, said even if J-1 workers were allowed to come, they won’t know until late May or June, so Harbor View is working on its plan B, which is to recruit from the Island and New England area.
“I’m hearing a lot of uncertainty,” he told The Times. He added if J-1 workers do eventually come, it would relieve some of the pressure on other workers.
Since he took over the hotel several years ago, the staff undergoes what he calls “five-star training” so they can meet the needs of the hotel’s guests.
Gardella said there are some initiatives in the works to help Island businesses find workers, either through the high school or getting retirees to come back into the workforce. She was recently on a Zoom panel with Healthy Aging MV, talking about some of the jobs that might be available to them.
According to Cindy Trish, executive director of Healthy Aging MV, one in three Islanders is over 65 years old, and 35 percent of those older adults are working. That’s well above the national average of 20 percent. “We’re looking for some creative ways to connect elders with these jobs,” Trish said. “It’s tough for employers and people who want to work.”
The second workshop sponsored by Healthy Aging, scheduled for Wednesday, focuses on providing employment overviews through the MassHire Career Center, volunteerism as a pathway to working through AmeriCorps, and “upskilling options” through programs at ACE MV, according to a flyer from the sessions. For information on signing up, call 508-693-7900, ext. 455, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Older adults might be looking for work either to earn income (it’s expensive to live on M.V.) or for socialization, Trish said.
There are “help wanted” signs going up all over the Island, and this year there are plenty of opportunities for locals who want to work. “I think many of us are going to be recruited into a second job to keep our Island going,” Gardella said.