BAR HARBOR — “Help Wanted” signs on nearly every storefront are not unusual this time of year as seasonal businesses get into full swing.
This year, though, delays in getting visas approved for temporary foreign workers on which many businesses rely have made the seasonal employee crunch much more severe.
Owners and managers of businesses large and small have been scrambling, working around the clock or putting off opening until help arrives.
“When you’re planning for workers to arrive May 15, and they arrive May 29 in the middle of the busiest Memorial Day Weekend we’ve seen, that’s when you’re upside down,” Harborside Hotel Manager Eben Salvatore said Wednesday. “Some outlets we didn’t open because we just didn’t have the people. The guest suffers more than anybody.”
“The last few weekends, most of our upper level management and administrative staff have been cleaning rooms on their off time to temporarily alleviate the problem,” said Kelly Wilder of Witham Family Hotels in an email. That company runs 12 hotels and motels in Bar Harbor and Ellsworth.
Some employers have sought advice from attorneys or appealed to the offices of Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King for help navigating the process.
“I have clients who have been running skeleton crews, closing one restaurant in order to staff another – it’s been insane,” said Marcus Jaynes, a Portland immigration attorney working with some local businesses.
“The process at the Department of Labor (DOL) this year was just extraordinarily delayed. It’s not a matter of incompetence – I think we’ve got good people handling the program. But it’s just an issue of volume and implementation of new procedures within it.
“It’s really discouraging.”
The two temporary worker programs supplying seasonal workers to Bar Harbor are known as J1 and H2B. 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.
The H2B process has three primary steps, Jaynes said.
“The employer has to first obtain a temporary labor certification from the DOL after conducting recruitment and testing the labor market to make sure that there are no minimally qualified U.S. workers to fill these jobs.”
Second, employers file a petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) once they have the temporary labor certification.
“If things are running smoothly, that can be done far in advance,” Jaynes said.
Finally, once petitions are approved by CIS, step 3 is for the workers abroad to apply for their visas with USCIS.
He said the DOL and USCIS are charged with balancing speed and accuracy. “DOL has been trying, on the one hand, to streamline the process and make it more efficient for employers. But on the other hand, they’re also challenged to battle against fraud. And there has been quite a bit of fraud and misleading advice from H2B agencies or agents.”
H2B workers have finally started to arrive, Salvatore said. More are expected soon.
Even after visas are approved, he said, massive logistical efforts remain. “We need to book them flights. And there are only so many flights from Jamaica to Bangor.”
In the local labor market, Hancock County’s unemployment rate hit 3.6 percent last August – the lowest seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in nearly a decade.
Unemployment numbers here have steadily dropped as the tourism industry has started to bounce back to its pre-recession levels, said Julie Rabinowitz of the Maine Department of Labor.
“As more and more year-round opportunities open up, those seasonal employers are in competition with other seasonal as well as year-round employers,” she said.
Rabinowitz also cited transportation and housing as other factors in the seasonal employee shortage.
Taylor Bilger contributed reporting to this story.