The Lower Cape economy relies heavily on guest workers from Eastern Europe, the Caribbean and other parts of the world, but with strict limits on the H-2B visa program – and a shortage of housing – local employers always seem to be scrambling for more staff.
“I know the Cape, as a whole, is concerned,” Harwich Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cyndi Williams said. Though she hasn’t heard specific problems from her members, Williams said there is always a need for seasonal help. The 20 or so companies that attended a recent job fair Monomoy High School certainly didn’t fill their employee rosters for the summer.
“They got some, for sure,” Williams said.
The H-2B guest worker program reached its semi-annual cap of 33,000 visas early this year, and while Congress voted to add 63,000 additional workers to the program, the Department of Homeland Security took no action to authorize the increase.
“There’s a squeeze,” Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Wendy Northcross said. The H-2B process was also changed this year, replacing the first-come first-served system with a lottery. That means that some H-2B guest workers who have been coming to the same employer for years are unable to obtain visas, requiring those employers to train new workers. For many companies, returning guest workers are more than a reliable source of labor.
“They’re like family,” Northcross said.
The other visa program commonly used by local restaurants, hotels and businesses is J-1, the student visa for cultural and educational visits. While J-1 visas are plentiful, they’re not a panacea, Orleans Chamber Executive Noelle Pina said.
“It’s always a big challenge for business owners to find places for their J-1 students to stay,” she said. The Orleans chamber hosted a workshop last month to identify local families interested in providing housing for student workers.
“We’ve signed up some hosts through the program,” Pina said. Typically, around 400 J-1 students work in Orleans each year, she said.
Brian Junkins at Friends’ Marketplace in Orleans said his business uses some J-1 workers and utilizes an agency to help recruit those employees. But this year, some agencies appear to be charging workers a larger fee if they find a job for the worker, with a discount for foreign student workers who already have a job identified. It appears they are encouraging workers to pay the higher fee, thus blocking some workers from returning to their previous summer’s jobs.
“It’s been a problem for people we wanted to get back,” he said.
The Cape has an unemployment rate of just 3.5 percent, “so there’s not a lot of people out of work or looking for work,” Northcross said. Many local businesses also report having difficulty recruiting local people for summer jobs.
In a bid to recruit more workers, the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce will be hosting a job fair in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on May 7 and 8, with the goal of offering jobs to workers still displaced by Hurricane Maria. The project is a joint effort of the Cape chamber and the Puerto Rico Tourism Office.
“In Puerto Rico there are several large resorts that have to totally rebuild,” Northcross said. Those workers have been furloughed for potentially two or three years. “They’ll be available, they’ll be needing something,” she said. Already, about 10 Cape Cod companies have committed to take part in the job fair, offering a combined 450 jobs. Puerto Ricans are American citizens and so do not need a visa to work in the states.
If the job fair is successful, it could open up a new source of workers for local businesses, since the visitor season in Puerto Rico is the opposite time of the year than on Cape Cod, she added.
But the catch, as it is with J-1 workers, is the lack of housing.
“You can’t go to Puerto Rico and say, ‘we’ve got jobs for you but we don’t know where you’re going to live,’” Northcross said.
The Cape Cod Chamber is exploring a partnership with an independent group interested in providing seasonal workforce housing at one or more locations on the Cape. The company would design and build the housing developments, operating them and charging employers a fixed weekly fee per worker, and would even provide transportation for workers to and from their jobs. The group has similar projects elsewhere in resort locations like Park City, Utah. The project may advance if there is enough demand for it, Northcross said.
“If we can get a couple of projects like that on the Upper Cape and the Lower Cape, that could go a long way toward helping people,” she said.