The paradox of the nonimmigrant H-2B and J-1 visa programs that allow temporary foreign workers to staff seasonal businesses is that they support local employment.
The seasonal businesses that petition to bring these workers here from Jamaica, Eastern Europe and elsewhere must advertise for U.S. workers first and demonstrate that they can’t find enough help. Workers cannot be expected to relocate within the U.S. for a seasonal job. Transportation to Mount Desert Island is a challenge for many in the broader Hancock and Washington County labor market. Full-time students are expected back at school before their employers can afford to lose them. Even businesses closing on Labor Day, which few do, lose students too early and find themselves in a bind at the end of August.
Last season, many H-2B workers arrived later than employers were hoping due to processing delays. This year, many petitions for workers were denied because the total quota for the program was reached early. In both cases, local business owners and their local employees suffered: opening late or not at all, working far too many hours and scrambling to multitask.
Some year-round businesses close for a month or so in the winter and pay the increased taxes that go to cover unemployment insurance for their temporarily laid-off staff. That seems to be working, but unemployment insurance for a whole winter would not be a sustainable or fair use of a program designed for lulls in manufacturing cycles.
The J-1 Summer Work Travel program is for workers who are students in their home countries. The H-2B program is broader, allowing temporary nonagricultural workers to work up to six months.
Employers and immigration attorneys are used to the H-2B program being a political football in Washington, but challenges to the J-1 program as part of a “Buy American” initiative are new. They’re also misguided.
The benefit of the visa programs to Maine businesses and workers is clear to every member of our congressional delegation, even as they fail to agree on other pressing issues.
Many workers return for five or 10 seasons, some for more. Outside of work, they join year-round residents in the grocery store and at church. Local residents here have nothing to fear from them and much to gain.