Editorial: Additional H-2B visas may ease workforce strain 

The federal government said this week that it would increase the number of temporary seasonal workers who will be allowed to work in the U.S. in the second half of the year by 35,000. This is welcome news as the U.S. economy continues to recover from the pandemic. 

It is also good news for local businesses already struggling to line up workers for what is expected to be another record-breaking year for tourism in Maine. 

The increase in available visas is in addition to the 33,000 visas already allocated to the program for the second half of the year. According to the federal Department of Labor, these visas will be set aside for U.S. employers seeking to hire additional workers on or after April 1 through Sept. 30. 

According to the Maine Office of Tourism, over 60 percent of visitors to the state come during the summer months, so the addition of these visas will be welcome news to the businesses that see a swelling of demand from May through October.  

H-2B visas are issued to overseas workers, but only after businesses make an effort to hire American workers for open positions. As part of the application process, business owners must attest that their business will suffer harm without the additional staff. The employment must be for a limited period of time, such as a one-time occurrence, seasonal or intermittent need, and an employer must show that hiring the H-2B workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers.  

In a typical year, Maine employers require approximately 2,500 H-2B workers to support the tourism sector, which sees an influx of millions of visitors to the state annually. It is estimated that 80 percent of those employees are concentrated in Old Orchard Beach, York County’s beach areas and Mount Desert Island. 

The last two years have been anything but typical, and employees are in short supply across all segments of the workforce. This is especially true in the hospitality and food and beverage sectors that have yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels. In Bar Harbor especially, these workers are relied upon to help fill open positions in hotels and restaurants. 

The move was applauded by Governor Janet Mills who has seen the struggles Maine employers have faced over the last few years.  

“Last summer, Maine welcomed record numbers of visitors to our state, but many businesses were short-staffed because the pandemic worsened our already longstanding workforce shortage problem,” said Gov. Mills. “These additional visas will be a boost for our tourism and hospitality industry, helping fill jobs as they prepare for a busy summer season. I appreciate the advocacy of Maine’s Congressional delegation.” 

Senators Angus King and Susan Collins pushed for the additional visas and released a joint statement when they were approved. “This announcement is welcome news for Maine’s hospitality industry and will help protect the jobs of Mainers who fill year-round positions,” they said. “These additional visas are particularly critical as Maine’s restaurants, hotels, inns, and other businesses are facing persistent workforce shortages, which can force employers to cut back parts of their operations and curtail hours. We are continuing to urge [Department of Homeland Security] to make additional visas available for the second half of the year as quickly as possible to ensure that Maine businesses are prepared for the busy summer season. The Administration should also expedite the visa application and review process so that businesses can get the help they need when they need it.” 

Eligible employers should move as quickly as possible to apply for these additional visas. In the meantime, Congress should consider raising the overall annual cap on these visas moving forward.   

In many instances, the parts of Maine that are most affected by a sharp rise in seasonal tourism are also the areas that are experiencing other challenges such as a lack of affordable workforce housing, which makes finding workers even more difficult. Maine is likely not alone in these challenges, and a good, long look at the program is in order.  

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