Additional H-2B visas a ‘band-aid’

BAR HARBOR — A second-round application process for temporary foreign workers announced last week may help local businesses toward the end of the season, ones that lost out in a first-round lottery over the winter.

The Department of Homeland Security announced May 31 that the federal government would make 15,000 more H-2B visas available this year.

“The limitations on H-2B visas were originally meant to protect American workers, but when we enter a situation where the program unintentionally harms American businesses, it needs to be reformed,” DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a May 25 statement.

A similar second round of visas was made available last year, but workers did not arrive until August, and many local businesses said it was too little, too late.

Kevin DesVeaux, owner of West Street Café, benefitted from the second-round added visas last year, but he said the policy needed to be permanently reformed.

“This is another band-aid on a much larger issue,” he said. “We are hopeful that many of our fellow restaurateurs in the community will benefit from this development.”

“Next year, it could be us again,” he added.

Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Martha Searchfield said the lottery system implemented this year gave all applicants an equal chance at receiving — or not receiving — vital workers.

“[Some local businesses] were disappointed about the lottery,” she said. “A lot of places didn’t get their workers.”

“We saw the disaster last year, and we filed our petitions at 12:01, [but] we had the same chance as the guy that applied two hours later,” said Eben Salvatore of hotel company Ocean Properties, which operates several hotels and restaurants here. “We altered our entire business plan.”

Greg Dugal, director of government affairs for the Maine Innkeepers Association, told the Islander in December that Maine used 2,400 foreign workers in 2016, with about 80 percent concentrated in Old Orchard Beach, York County’s beach areas and Mount Desert Island.

Only 66,000 visas are made available nationwide each fiscal year. The H-2B program used to allow exempt returning workers and not count them towards the hard limit. That program expanded the pool to 126,000 workers. But in 2017, the returning worker exemption ended. Businesses around the country were up in arms with the decision, because the shortfall of 60,000 workers hampered their business.

Salvatore said his company opened many locations early to be closer to the deadline for applications. Ocean Properties also filed for more J-1 visas to help fill the shortage.

J1 visas are predominantly student visas that last for four months. They are meant to encourage cultural exchange and promote the United States to foreign students. The H-2B visa brings adult nonagricultural workers who stay for six months.

Salvatore said his business could face a worker shortage in the fall when students go back to school. Ocean Properties does not plan to apply for any more H-2B visas this year, he said, because other businesses need them more.

Searchfield said the government needs to recognize the need for seasonal workers to support economies like Bar Harbor.

She also said more and more local residents are looking for full-time employment and opting not to take seasonal jobs.

“It’s hard to find people to fill the jobs,” she said. “The need is there.”




Samuel Shepherd

Samuel Shepherd

Samuel Shepherd is a University of Maine graduate and a former Bar Harbor reporter for the Mount Desert Islander.
Samuel Shepherd

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