Budget deal brings hope for H-2B break

BAR HARBOR — A budget deal announced by congressional leaders Sunday night includes good news for seasonal businesses here that rely on foreign workers.

The plan includes a provision allowing foreign workers who have been here before under the H-2B temporary worker program to come back to work this year even though the annual cap for the program has been reached already.

Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King were among the sponsors of a bill in Congress seeking such an exemption for returning workers. They also have asked for an audit to determine the number of unused visas during the first half of the fiscal year so any unused visas could be provided to eligible businesses that are still short of workers due to the cap.

“Everybody was really thrilled,” said Martha Searchfield of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce. “They’re happy to know that relief will be coming. It’s not a done deal yet, but we’re cautiously optimistic.”

Uncertainty about the visa program was one reason the chamber held a job fair Saturday, highlighting new approaches like part-time schedules that could attract older workers. It was the first such event in several years, brought back at the request of member businesses. They reached out to other area chambers, Husson University and other institutions in the Bangor area to advertise the fair, she said.

She said employers “had to do a jump shift” to look elsewhere for employees in the last couple of months when the H-2B cap was reached earlier than usual.

“I know they looked other places,” she said. “I know they were trying to recruit, but I don’t know if they found enough people.”

All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation were at work on the H-2B issue in the last few weeks, along with industry groups like the Maine Innkeepers Association.

King led a group of seven senators who wrote to Senate leadership last week urging action on this issue. “The H-2B program relies on well-vetted workers who come to the U.S. for seasonal employment and then return home,” they wrote. “These workers are not immigrants. They provide an opportunity for U.S. businesses to operate at a greater capacity, retain their full-time workers and contribute to their local communities.”

Collins is a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and worked closely on the budget deal. “I am pleased that the bipartisan budget agreement provides much needed relief to the cap on H-2B visas that we pushed for, which will help small businesses thrive, protect American workers and expand economic opportunities for local residents,” she said in a statement.

Congress has not yet voted on the budget deal, which will cover the rest of the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Last Friday, they approved a one-week measure to avoid a government shutdown over the weekend.

Staffers estimated the budget agreement would come to a vote in the House on Wednesday and a vote in the Senate later in the week.

Many returning workers from Jamaica have come every season for six or seven years on H-2B visas, Harborside Hotel manager Eben Salvatore said earlier this spring. Some of these long-time workers store personal belongings here in the off-season.

“This is their second home,” he said.

Updated on May 3 at 8:52 a.m.

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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