HARWICH — Each foreign national employed in the U.S. under the H2B temporary non-agricultural visa program sustains the jobs of 4.6 Americans, according to Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Wendy Northcross.
Northcross joined a panel of representatives of the business and political worlds Feb. 9 at the cultural center to demystify the seasonal worker program.
“Without an influx of additional workers to meet customer demand during peak season,” she said, “thousands of year-round jobs are at risk.”
The panel convened by the League of Women Voters of the Cape Cod Area also included state Senator Julian Cyr; U.S. Representative Bill Keating's district policy advisor, Andrew Nelson; former Chatham selectman Sean Summers, owner of Summers Home and Office Services, Inc.; and Amy Voll, executive administrator for Mac's Seafood.
Northcross stressed that H2B is not an easy out for companies that can't be bothered to find American workers. Employers must prove they can't fill the jobs locally. The program “is a last resort for most,” she said, “because it's expensive and time-consuming.” That refers to the application process as well as the actual hiring, which involves buying plane tickets, subsidizing housing, and paying the state's prevailing wage.
“Without sufficient seasonal workers April through October,” Northcross said, “local companies face the loss of sales revenue and goodwill, and the state faces lost taxes.” She added, “Seasonally, we hire teachers, our kids, people from the Cape, but historically the Cape still has a gap. Anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 positions would go unfilled if not for these visa programs.”
Noting Northcross's statement that seasonal workers sustain other, year-round jobs for Cape Codders, Voll said, “I am that American employee everyone is talking about who has her job because of H2B.” She handles recruitment and hiring of seasonal workers for Mac's, which owns seafood markets and restaurants in four towns, including Chatham, and doubles as the company's communications director. She's founding coordinator of the New England Seasonal Business Coalition.
When the Cape's tourist influx arrives, said Voll, Wellfleet goes from 2,000 to 3,000 people up to 20,000. “Imagine going into one of those restaurants and the door is closed, or you get a sub-par meal, or don't have somebody to wait on you, or no one to cook your meal,” she said. “You get quality service because you have the H2B non-immigrant program. These people come in (to work) and go home.”
Warning that the Cape “would basically die without these people coming in,” Voll said the region “doesn't have the people because we don't have the housing. Young people do not want to stay here. We don't have any kids here, and the kids don't want to wash dishes and don't have a skill to work in a kitchen or even a hotel to do that kind of hospitality work.”
Summers noted that the season offers “great opportunities to local kids. You can go quahoging and make 300 bucks a day. Everyone wants to waitress; you can make hundreds a day.” But there are still jobs to fill in the back of the house at restaurants.
On the other hand, the H2B program brings back for seasonal employment “people we've been hiring for years and years and years,” Voll said. “They become family for us.” The visiting workers contribute more than their labor, she noted. “They pay into our Social Security system, our Medicaid system, and never get anything back,” Voll said. “They're wonderful, wonderful people. They send the money home. They create a better life for their families (and) a better life for us here.”
H2B visas differ from J1 visas, which are reserved for foreign nationals enrolled in overseas universities in a cultural exchange program run by the State Department intended to give young people a close-up look at the United States. Students are allowed to work while they're here, but the program has many fewer requirements and costs than the H2B.
The H2B system worked “OK” until the government “stripped out our returning worker exemption” from the H2B cap of 66,000 visas, seasonally divided in half, according to Voll. “These people have been vetted over and over again by the Department of Labor and the Immigration department. They're known entities.”
Nelson said the H2B program has “one of the lowest overstay rates of any program that allows (people) into the United States.” By contrast, “85 percent of those who are here undocumented come in on a (non-H2B) visa and overstay; they're not walking across the border.” Keating recently sent a letter to the House leadership asking for cap relief, something that has traditionally been attached to the bill funding Homeland Security.
“Congressman Keating has been a dog with a bone on this,” Cyr said, while the state's U.S. senators have been “cautious.” He attributed that in part to arguments from labor interests that may not appreciate the Cape's special circumstances.
Voll said senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren “have not been very helpful on this issue” and asked that the audience encourage the senators' support. “They're tying it into the immigration issue,” she said, but “it's not about immigration, it's about business, helping our businesses survive so we can all stay here and enjoy our life year-round.”
Even with political support, administration of the H2B program has been a headache since the game-changing day of Sept. 11, 2001, according to Summers. “The government will approve the business first, at great expense,” he said, “and then that same program denies the workers you like at the window in the foreign country.”
The consequences for local business owners can be heavy. A Chatham woman in the audience spoke about a motel owner in the same town who “did everything right” in applying for the program last year but wound up losing out in a lottery held because so many requests were received.
“She had to go home and tell 14 European individuals they weren't able to come over,” she said. “By the end of the season, she and her family were exhausted.”
Cyr said his family relied on the H2B program from its inception in the 1990s for their seasonal restaurant in Truro, Adrian's. “All these workers were from Jamaica,” he said. “These are people we are still in touch with, as Facebook friends. One just opened a restaurant in Jamaica. Our family dog just passed away last week and I heard from some of them.”
Returning seasonal workers are crucial. “You can train someone with no experience in restaurants how to bus tables or maybe dish wash,” Cyr said, “but training how to be a line cook or make pizza in a brick oven is much harder. Returning workers become so skilled they're running your business.” The “big driving factor in why my parents got out of the business after 28 years,” he added, “was that the workforce piece was too difficult.”
Cyr said he recognized the demands placed on the economy by efforts to extend the season and by colleges bringing students back earlier in the summer, but he looked deeper.
“We are doing a poor job on planning and infrastructure,” he said. “We didn't keep up with housing production. Most everything we built was single-family homes that lend themselves to the second homeowner market. We are completely out of whack regarding a market that doesn't meet our needs. We buried our heads in the sand as relates to sewer infrastructure and had to be sued. Now we're doing something about it.”
A living example of the balance between seasonal and Cape-resident workers spoke from the audience. A retired woman described the opportunity she has not only to serve as a member of her town's conservation commission but also to work part of the year for a catering business. “I work until Patricia comes from Jamaica so she can work,” the woman said. “When Patrica leaves, I work to replace her. I live here. I don't own a business. I'm so delighted to step up and help those really hard workers. I'm so grateful to the incredible work and work ethic they bring.”