BAR HARBOR – Sherica Higgins, 29, can still remember shaking with joy when she received a text confirming her work placement as a housekeeper at the West Street Hotel.
She first came to Bar Harbor in 2016 on an H-2B visa, a seasonal work authorization for temporary nonagricultural jobs in the United States.
Higgins has a bachelor’s degree in hospitality and tourism management, but she didn’t get any calls back from jobs in her home country, Jamaica, so she decided to try her luck in the U.S. She said the job has tremendously helped her and her family.
“I can improve on my house, pay off debts, pay off bills,” she told the Islander on Monday. The job also has helped her put her son, Nathaniel, who turns five later this month, through school.
Higgins said she knows many people in Jamaica who, like her, hope to earn a wage in the U.S.
Maine businesses, too, are in need of foreign workers to fill positions that aren’t taken by U.S. employees. But the current cap on the H-2B program is leaving local businesses scrambling, particularly those in the hospitality industry.
Eben Salvatore, director of operations for hotel company Ocean Properties, which includes the West Street Hotel, the Harborside Hotel and the Bar Harbor Club, said they’d normally open the hotels for business in mid-May. But this year, in order to improve their chances of getting certifications to hire foreign workers, they’ve had to put down April 1 as a start date.
“If you’re not first in line, you’re left out in the cold, like last year,” he said.
In order to avoid this problem, Patrick Morgan, president of Witham Family Hotels, said that rather than rely only on H-2B visas, they “cast as wide a net as possible” this year and applied for J1 visas as well, which are temporary work permits for people who are still students in their home countries. The company owns and operates 13 hotel properties along the coast of Maine, including the Bar Harbor Inn, the Atlantic Oceanside Hotel and the Bar Harbor Grand Hotel.
Last year, the H-2B visa cap was reached early on, and businesses struggled to come up with solutions for the shortage of local workers. The only relief that the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security could offer was a one-time increase of 15,000 visas, which came late in the season, in August.
This year, the nationwide 33,000 cap for the second half of the fiscal year was reached even earlier. Citizenship and Immigration Services reported that they received about 2,700 H-2B petitions requesting approximately 47,000 workers within their first five business days, by Feb. 27. As a result, CIS decided to swap the first-in, first-out allocation with a lottery, randomly selecting petitions.
“It’s a very frustrating system that can feel arbitrary and unfair,” said Marcus Jaynes, a Portland immigration attorney working with some local businesses.
“The numbers [of H-2B petitions] were through the roof, and now we’re again looking to Congress for a fix,” he said.
Maine’s senators have repeatedly pressured the federal government to raise the cap on H-2B visas. Local businesses are hoping the senators will succeed in codifying the returning worker exemption that was introduced in 2016 but has since expired, said Martha Searchfield, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce. The provision exempted foreign workers who had previously been in the U.S. on H-2B visa status from the cap.
“We risk losing people who have been here for 10 years, who come with experience,” said Salvatore. “You’re left with people who need to be properly trained in a short period of time.”
Steve Hewins, president and CEO of the Maine Restaurant and Maine Innkeepers associations, said that under the Trump administration, H-2B visas have become a political issue.
“It has gotten intertwined with immigration issues to the detriment of a program that isn’t about immigration. By definition, H-2B workers are temporary workers, they’re not looking to move here. Because of concern with border protection, it gets put in that bucket when it shouldn’t be,” he said.
Some have criticized the program, arguing that it displaces American workers. But Jayne said employers are required to advertise in local papers as well as the state career center before they apply to hire foreign workers.
Given the amount of money, time and effort invested in the application process, “believe me, our members would much prefer to hire local people for these jobs, they’re just not available,” said Hewins.
Maine’s unemployment rate hit a record low of 2.9 percent in February. “That means there’s about 29,000 people in the state who aren’t working. It’s not as if there’s so many people just waiting around for a job,” said Searchfield.
What’s more, Maine reported record-high sales in lodging and restaurant service last year, with the hospitality industry pulling $3.8 billion in revenue. Hewins said demand continues to rise as the state attracts more tourists, but the number of available employees continues to decrease.
“We need a long-term commitment that workers are available and not have to fight this battle every year.”