With Fewer Available H-2B Visas, Employers Struggle To Find Seasonal Workers
It's pretty quiet right now in Ogunquit, Maine. But Sarah Diment, owner of Beachmere Inn, says a surge of tourists in the summer will transform the city into a bustling New England ocean resort colony. And accompanying the tourists are an influx of foreign workers.
"Most of the women that have worked for us have come from Jamaica," Diment says. "They come, they work, they buy. It's an insane amount of goods that they ship home. And then they go home every year."
Prospects are dimming for their return: A cap was reached on the number of short-term work visas provided under the H-2B program, which brings in low-skilled labor for nonagricultural jobs that U.S. employers say they can't fill closer to home. This occurs mostly in landscaping, seafood processing, maid and other hospitality services.
The program provides roughly 66,000 of the visas. In some years — including last year — Congress has allowed more. But that's not the case this year.
Southern tier states such as Florida have already secured workers, but many resorts with later seasons won't make it into the queue. Diment says she's likely to close up whole sections of the Beachmere, cancel reservations booked long ago and possibly lay off local staff.
"If I have to take 20 rooms out of inventory, then do I really need five people in our maintenance department?" she asks. "Do I really need eight people at the front desk? Not only would it impact my guests, but it would potentially impact what we do here as a hotel to stay open with everyone else."
Those concerns have caught the attention of a bipartisan coalition of senators, including Maine Republican Susan Collins, that wants an audit of the H-2B program to ensure all available visas are issued.
"I think it's important to realize that even in this environment, where immigration issues have become so controversial, that these are essentially guest workers," Collins says.
She also wants more visas allotted for returning workers. But efforts to expand the program are likely to be caught in the larger immigration debate and to divide Republicans. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for instance, condemned the program last year, when he was the senator of Alabama.
"Our focus needs to be on getting Americans back to work — not on seeing how many foreign workers we can bring to the United States," he says.
Progressive groups also oppose the program. They point to evidence of abuses: unenforced pay-scale and advertising requirements, which can hurt wages for American job-seekers. And because the visas commit workers to a single employer, opponents say there's a power imbalance that puts workers at risk of deportation if they try to protest any mistreatment.
Congressional supporters of the visa program may still try to attach expansions to a coming budget measure. But one major wildcard is President Trump.
"Buy American, and hire American" has been his mantra. But he's also hired dozens of H-2B workers for his properties, including Mar-a-Lago, which he's called the "winter White House."
Fred Bever is a reporter with NPR member station Maine Public Radio. You can follow him @fredbever.
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