H-2B Visa Cap Could Create Shortage of Summer Workers

H-2B Visa Cap Could Create Shortage of Summer Workers

A new cap on visas for seasonal workers from foreign countries has some Martha’s Vineyard employers scrambling to fill jobs before the summer tourist crush begins.

Like many resort destinations, Vineyard businesses use J-1 and H-2B visa programs to fill a workforce demand that is not met by the supply of American workers. For the past decade, foreign workers from Jamaica, Ghana, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan and elsewhere have become more of a presence behind counters, wheeling housekeeping carts and washing dishes during the Island’s busiest season.

The J-1 visa program is an exchange program allowing international students to come work in the United States. The H-2Bvisa program allows 66,000 foreign workers to come to the United State and work for six months, split into two seasons. In past years, returning H-2B visa workers were not counted toward the cap. That exemption expired on September 30, 2016 and was not renewed.

The cap of 33,000 H-2B visa workers for the summer season was met on March 13. Employers can only petition for visa holders 90 days before they start work, meaning businesses that start later in the season stood a lower chance of making it under the cap.

Cong. William Keating has introduced legislation that would bring back the exemption for returning H-2B visa holders for this season. He has also filed for an audit of last season’s visas to bring over any of the unused 33,000 to this season.

Yet as spring begins in earnest, some employers are still unclear if they will be able to fill positions with the H-2B visaholders they petitioned for.

Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, said every year brings staffing concerns, but these have been amplified this year because of the visa issue.

“Quite a number of businesses I talked to this year are very, very frustrated with how the new laws have impacted their ability to return employees who have worked with them previously through the H-2B visa program,” she said. “It’s a very popular program here on the Vineyard to get adult workers and some of those workers are in supervisory positions.”

Ms. Gardella said the Vineyard just doesn’t have enough workers in the demographic needed for the hard labor jobs that visa holders often fill.

“We have a large retiree base. Those people won’t want work landscaping or busing tables at one in the morning. They won’t do housekeeping,” she said.

“We have abundance of high school students. They aren’t going to do that either. We don’t have the 18 to 50-year-olds who are going to work these jobs. We have to find them.”

At Cronig’s Markets, J-1 and H-2B visa holders fill out various staff positions across the two stores. Owner Steve Bernier said Wednesday he feels very uncertain about the upcoming season.

“I have a feeling this is going to be the summer we won’t forget,” said Mr. Bernier. “It’s a tough enough thing when everything goes right... I can’t imagine how this is all going to work.”

Of the approximately 120 workers he employs during the summer, 35 come through visa programs, Mr. Bernier said. About three-fourths are returning workers, both H-2B and J-1. He equated putting together a summer workforce with putting together a puzzle.

“Right now the pieces are not fitting and working,” he said. “The worst case scenario is picture Cronig’s closing at 6 p.m. at night because we don’t have the staff.”

Congressman Keating, reached by phone, said the H-2B visa issue has been viewed as an immigration issue when it is really a small business issue.

“Our economy is growing, we’re having great success in hospitality and service industries, there’s more demand and that demand has resulted in the need for more H-2B visas,” he said. “There are people coming to meet most of the need. There will be businesses in our region that still won’t be able to have the personnel they need for the season because there is a cap.”

Many of the visa workers on the Island are returning workers. Mike McCourt, owner and general manager at Murdick’s Fudge, who made it under the cap, said 13 of his 14 H-2B visa workers for this season are returning. It’s a staff he has been curating over the years, picking and choosing and working on the recommendations of his trusted employees. “It’s like having a year-round employee,” he said. “They opened up and closed down last year. They come in, set everything up and we’re ready to roll.”

His three best fudge makers are H-2B visa holders from Jamaica. Daniel Ferguson has been with Murdick’s for five years, Ricardo Salmon for about four and Davyan Miller joined last year.

Furthermore, he said, the workers stick around for the entire season.

“I can depend on the person I appoint in April will be there in October,” he said.

Mr. McCourt has been working with H-2B visa holders for 20 years. One year, right after the terror attacks of 9-11, visas were restricted and Murdick’s missed the cap. Mr. McCourt had to scramble, looking to visa workers who came to the United States during the first half of the year.

“We recruited H-2B workers at ski resorts, filed for extensions, and they came here and worked for me that summer,” he said. “I had to train everybody from ground zero.”

Mid-season, as American college students return to school, keeping a business staffed is even more difficult.

“Finding employees, it becomes a mad scramble end of July and first of August,” he said. “Especially people who start losing employees, it becomes a bidding war.”

In Oak Bluffs, Summercamp Hotel, formerly the Wesley Hotel, relies on visa workers as the backbone of its housekeeping department. General manager Tania Pereira said they employ about 40 seasonal workers to care for their 100 rooms and about 60 to 70 per cent of those are hired through a visa program. Concerns this year about staffing are more worrisome than last year, she said. Hiring is handled out of the main office for Lark Hotels, which owns the Summercamp.

“It’s never 100 per cent easy, because you could petition for a certain number and we can’t petition for new H-2B visas,” she said. “We’re a little more nervous than past years, definitely.”

Businesses that rely mainly on J-1 visa holders to fill gaps left by American workers are facing less anxiety than those who use H-2B, as J-1 visas are not subject to the cap.

JB Blau, owner of several restaurants including Sharky’s, the Copper Wok and Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Co., relies on J-1 visa holders to fill a gap in staff between the summer season and the winter to keep his restaurants open year round.

“If you can’t bridge September and October, there’s no way to get to November,” he said.

Smaller businesses, who don’t act as visa-holder sponsors, benefit from the influx of workers in the summer and often employ the foreign visa holders as a second job.

Jane Cecilio, co-owner of Fella’s said she hires many J-1 visa holders once they arrive on the Island. However, the tense environment surrounding immigration has her concerned.

“I’m hoping all the J-1s come, I’m a little worried this year,” she said. “It’s tough to find staff. And finding good people, that’s the bottom line always. We do count on visa people, very much so. I don’t know what it is, but we don’t get as many high school and college kids anymore.”

As for businesses waiting to hear if they can count on returning visa holders, Congressman Keating said the soonest they will hear is in about three weeks, when Congress considers a resolution that includes an amendment exempting returning workers. It is the second time such an amendment has been sought this year.

“There is no reason businesses should have to go through this every season...if we could deal with the returning worker issue, this anxiety would end,” he said.