Hancock County’s hospitality industry faces a systemic worker shortage. Unlike other sectors, however, there’s actually an answer for the shortfall — if the federal government would just get out of the way.
The H-2B visa program allows American companies outside of the agricultural sector to hire temporary foreign workers to cover seasonal boosts in demand. For this purpose, 66,000 visas are handed out annually, split evenly between the two halves of the year, providing critical support to many seasonal industries, including landscaping, hospitality and forestry.
For the 2018-19 fiscal year, 126 Maine businesses have applied for the program to fill 2,280 positions, according to the Portland Press Herald. That’s a small portion of the nearly 86,000 employees who work in the summer hospitality industry in Maine, but those relative few make the difference in rounding out staffs and filling jobs crucial to restaurant and hotel operations. Because of worker shortages, some businesses have had to delay opening for the season, close early or shut down altogether.
The program has become more popular in recent years, particularly as the unemployment rate nationwide has fallen to historic lows, making it even more difficult to find workers.
The number of applications for H-2B visas increased 25 percent in fiscal year 2017, then another 5.4 percent in 2018.
In response, Congress has in each of the last two years given the Department of Homeland Security authority to double the number of H-2B visas awarded, from 66,000 to 135,000. However, the agency has added just 15,000 each time.
This year, Homeland Security said it will release up to 30,000 additional visas for the year, provided the visas go to returning workers. But, though President Trump has publicly praised the H-2B program, his administration has generally made it more difficult for foreign workers — skilled and unskilled — to come to the U.S.
So the increase in visas represents a welcome development. But it is still not enough; employers have filed paperwork seeking 96,400 workers for this summer season alone.
Our Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King are asking that the annual cap on H-2B visas be permanently set at 135,000 to recognize the clear demand for these workers — and to lay out a clear, predictable process for employers and employees.
Congress should do just that, while also putting adequate safeguards in place to make sure that vulnerable H-2B workers are being paid prevailing wages and not otherwise being exploited by employers — safeguards that are necessary to protect both domestic and foreign workers.
The number of visas available now is not going to cut it. If the limit isn’t raised, thousands of positions — from cleaning hotel rooms and manning kitchens to picking seafood and clearing trees — will be left unfilled around the country.
In Hancock County, businesses in the tourism business that are already struggling to fill positions will struggle further. For them, the busiest time of the year will just be a missed opportunity.