Under normal circumstances, local businesses struggle to find enough employees to stay fully staffed through a busy summer season. And with foreign workers serving as a political lightning rod in Washington, this summer promises to be anything but normal.
Problems with the H-2B and J-1 visa programs could trim around 1,000 foreign workers from the Cape's summer workforce, officials say.
“It's grim,” Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Wendy Northcross said this week. “Actually, I got a call from a member in Dennisport this morning who is really, really concerned.” The business owner estimated that Dennis will have between 100 and 200 fewer H-2B workers than in years past. The result could be felt across many industries, from restaurants and hotels to landscaping businesses and retailers.
The H-2B program allows employers to hire people from certain countries to fill non-agricultural jobs for up to nine months in a year. The program is expensive for employers, who need to work with four separate federal agencies to verify that the job cannot be filled using local workers. The number of participating workers, nationwide, is set at 66,000, with only half of those eligible to start work in the summertime.
“That's the program that is of the most concern this particular year,” Northcross said. While the cap was met last week, the main problem is the expiration of the returning worker exemption, which allowed H-2B employees to come back each year without counting against the cap.
“Many of our superstars are part of the H-2B visa program,” Wequassett Resort and Golf Club Managing Partner Mark Novota said. “Many of our H-2B visas have been with us for many, many years.” Wequassett works with an experienced recruitment firm that managed to secure visas for the necessary workers before the cap was met. “But we know that a lot of our friends are not having such good outcomes,” he said. The resort had to obtain new H-2B visas for returning workers this year, he added.
The other key program for foreign workers, J-1, is for college students visiting as part of a cultural exchange. J-1 visitors are allowed to work for up to five months, but this year there are new restrictions on this visa program as well.
“There are two countries that the U.S. embassy has been very hard on,” Northcross said. The chamber has learned that many applications from Bulgaria and Macedonia are being rejected. “We don't know why. We're just hearing about patterns,” she said. The Cape Cod Chamber is working to support J-1 participants and the companies that employ them. Since J-1 workers need to obtain a Social Security number before working, the chamber is working with the Social Security Administration to have special office hours at sites in Provincetown and Orleans one day a week between April and June.
But for this season, the prime focus is on H-2B workers, and a feverish campaign is underway in Washington to free up more visas under the program.
Mac Hay of Mac's Seafood in Eastham is leading a group called the New England Seasonal Business Coalition, which has hired a lobbying firm to try and get the returning worker exemption reinstated. And Congressman William Keating, D., Ninth District, filed legislation this week to do so. Under the bill, workers who received an H-2B visa in fiscal years 2014, 2015 or 2016 would be exempted from the cap for fiscal 2017.
“Many of these returning workers have been employed by the same businesses year after year and are welcomed back by employers and patrons alike,” Keating wrote in a press statement. “These workers who have long-standing relationships with their employer should be exempt from the current statutory H-2B cap until there is a permanent solution for addressing the worker shortages experienced by these businesses every year.” Keating has also called for an audit to make sure that any unused H2-B visas from the first half of the year are made available during the second half, when Cape employers need them.
Chatham Bars Inn Human Resources Director Danyel Matteson said the inn relies heavily on the returning worker program, “which we still have very high hopes for.”
“The H2-B's are a great enhancement to our company,” she said.
According to the New England Seasonal Business Coalition, every H-2B position helps create and maintain 4.62 American jobs. They argue that without H-2B workers, many vital local businesses wouldn't have the staff necessary to operate.
“It does not take away any jobs,” Matteson said. “We would love to have more Americans working for us.” But there simply aren't sufficient workers available during peak season, she said. By law, H-2B workers must be paid prevailing wages, and while they pay taxes and contribute to Medicare and Social Security, they are not eligible to receive those benefits.
“We constantly try to wean ourselves from it,” Novota said. “But that's hard to do with such loyal, long-term employees.” Wequassett is leaning more heavily on J-1 workers this year, and is also increasing its efforts to recruit American workers from Florida, Las Vegas and Colorado, “places that might complement our seasonality.”
The H-2B program allows visa holders working in one resort area to work in another resort area during part of their annual stay. Chatham Bars Inn has had success this year recruiting H-2B workers who were already in the country, Matteson said. But the solution isn't ideal.
“We're an eight-month operation. There's very few four-month operations out there,” Novota said. Wequassett is relying more on J-1 workers since the program tends to be less volatile than H-2B.
“With the new administration and so much emphasis on immigration, and so much polarization, we know that we have to work hard to come up with more creative solutions,” Novota said.