Visas for seasonal workers in Maine's tourist towns may be a challenge to come by this year. ISLANDER FILE PHOTO

Visa cap hinders local labor supply

BAR HARBOR — While hotels and restaurants are busy preparing for the coming tourist season here, some also are facing uncertainty about whether the foreign workers they traditionally hire will get permission to come to work this year.

According to the Maine Innkeepers Association, between 7,000 and 8,000 foreign seasonal workers are employed in the state every year, about 10 percent of the seasonal hospitality workforce.

The two temporary worker programs supplying seasonal workers to Bar Harbor are known as J1 and H-2B. The J1 workers, who are full-time students in their home countries, are usually here only through August. The H2B program for temporary non-agricultural workers is broader. For many years, the program has been the subject of fierce debate on Capitol Hill.

“Every year, there are changes in the law or changes in the procedure,” said Portland immigration attorney Marcus Jaynes Tuesday. “For the last five or 10 years, it’s been tweaked over and over again.”

The cap of 66,000 H-2B visas for the current fiscal year already has been exceeded, Jaynes said. That means employers are pinning their hopes on a pending bill that would exempt returning workers from the cap.

That, and getting to work on their plan b.

“We’re scrambling, as everybody is,” Harborside Hotel manager Eben Salvatore said. “We’re optimistic that the annual crisis is resolved by Congress once again and we can properly staff and function. But at the same time, we’re researching other options.”

H-2B workers at the Harborside and other Ocean Properties hotels arrive usually beginning in late April, staggered over several weeks as different hotels open for the season, Salvatore said. Most are from Jamaica. Last year, delays in processing the requests at the U.S. Department of Labor meant some H2B workers did not arrive until after Memorial Day. Many of the company’s workers return year after year and store personal belongings like dishes and clothing here in the off-season.

“Everyone’s hanging by a thread right now,” Jaynes said. “I’ve had several clients just bail on the program because of the uncertainty. But a lot of them don’t have other options; they are going to be really stuck. If [the new bill] doesn’t get enacted and businesses close, I think there’ll be serious repercussions politically.”

As part of applying for H-2B visas, employers have to show that they’re unable to find U.S. workers to fill their jobs, and they must be actively advertising. But the temporary visa programs may be facing new headwinds under the Trump administration.

“There is this anti-immigrant sentiment within our country that is potentially going to frustrate” progress on improving the visa system, Jaynes said. “There’s lots of evidence that people aren’t taking these jobs. With H-2Bs for hospitality workers, U.S. workers don’t want to clean rooms and work in restaurants for a few months out of the year.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) announced March 17 that the cap for this year already has been reached. The quota is divided in half to give businesses with different seasons a shot at visas.

This year, Jaynes said, some businesses who did not receive visas in the first round reapplied at the beginning of the second half of the fiscal year, asking for workers to start April 1. The second half of the cap, then, was used up even faster, he said.

“You can’t blame them for doing it. They’re just using the system as best they can. But then the division of the cap into the two halves isn’t really having the desired effect.”

In a joint statement March 31, U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King said that they’re supporting a bill sponsored by Sen. Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina) to add flexibility to the program. The bill was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.

It includes a returning worker exemption, Jaynes said, that was first put in place last year but already has expired. “The exemption allows employers to bring in H-2B workers who have been in the U.S. in H-2B status in the last three years; they are treated as exempt from the cap.”

“Last year, Maine welcomed nearly 36 million visitors who had a combined economic impact of approximately $9 billion, and those numbers are continuing to grow,” Collins said in the statement. “Many Maine small businesses, particularly in the tourism and hospitality industries, rely on seasonal workers to supplement local employees during peak seasons and keep up with this increasing demand. By streamlining the application process and codifying the returning worker exemption, which has been vital to Maine’s seasonal businesses, our legislation will help protect American workers and allow Maine’s small businesses to thrive.”

“It’s a common sense fix. But Congress isn’t always common sense,” Salvatore said. “The program is difficult as it is.”





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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