Many hoteliers are struggling this summer after being shut out of an increasingly dysfunctional H-2B visa program.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—U.S.-based hoteliers are finding it increasingly difficult to use the federal government’s H-2B visa program for foreign temporary non-agricultural workers, and in some places this year the results have been borderline disastrous, according to sources. Hotels in seasonal, late-summer regions like New England have been hit particularly hard, and are now facing critical labor shortages during peak months.
Although Washington approved in July the issuance of an additional 15,000 H-2B visas, for many operators the action is simply too little, too late. For others, all they can do is reapply for the new batch, hoping some form of relief arrives by autumn.
“This year, we did not receive any visas, so at the moment I have none of my staff here who typically come for the season. We’ve been trying to fill in the best we can, but we’re still short-staffed as of today,” said Sarah Diment, owner of The Beachmere Inn in Ogunquit, Maine, which in past years has employed a largely Jamaican temporary housekeeping staff during the high season.
This year though, Diment and her reduced staff are working lots of overtime.
“Most of my staff don’t want overtime,” she said. “This is summer, when their families are home and the kids are out of school. It’s great they’ve got this job, but housekeeping’s hard work. When you ask someone to work 44 to 46 hours a week, you’re asking for them to get hurt.”
For hotels like The Beachmere that once enjoyed perennial returning seasonal workers, the removal of the returning worker exemption from the H-2B program in recent years has been a major setback. Trusted employees who’ve been returning for decades to the same seasonal job are now required to obtain a new visa each year.
Impact of timing
Part of the problem is a timing issue: There is currently an annual cap of 66,000 H-2B visas, divided between two halves of the year. Applicants must state a date of need for the workers. If that date falls relatively late in the season—say, for example, April to October in the Northeast—the 33,000 bi-annual visa cap may already be reached by the time the late-season applicants are considered, making it possible for entire regions (like the Northeast) to come up empty. That situation also speaks to the even bigger problem: There simply aren’t enough visas to go around, especially now that returning workers count against the cap.
“Congress has correctly realized that there is a real need here; that the 66,000 visa cap is far too low to meet the seasonal needs of many businesses, but this administration did not move expeditiously to free up additional visas, which has been a point of frustration,” said Brian Crawford, VP of government affairs for the American Hotel & Lodging Association. “We have hoteliers up in Maine, Cape Cod and elsewhere in the Northeast, who’ve not been able to operate at full capacity due to the lack of H-2B workers. It’s devastating for many businesses that rely on this program and who rely on peak season to meet their budget for the entire year.”
Some hotel employers said some of the current administration’s “America First” sentiment underlies the current H-2B dilemma. Historically, hoteliers have supported the platform that immigration policy is not part of an H-2B visa discussion, since visa holders spend a short time here and are paid fair, prevailing wages. Hoteliers who use the program usually advertise to find local help first, with little success.
“Over the course of the last couple of years, the newest mindset is that somehow we as business owners are doing something wrong by opting into these programs, and it’s kind of frustrating,” said Tony DeLois, COO of TCI Hospitality Group, which also calls Maine home. “It’s these blanket statements, like ‘America First,’ that nobody really looks into, that we’re fighting against. In these seasonal towns, every day that goes by that you don’t have employees, you’re sacrificing your ability to be sustainable. We called the county penitentiary to get work release. We are literally doing everything we can to get people to work for us.”
DeLois’ request for inmate laborers was denied by the county, as only non-profit organizations are eligible to use work-release programs. So for now, his hotels are trying to get by on shorter-term workers here temporarily in the U.S. via J-1 visas, while his permanent staff also wear numerous hats in order to try and help pick up the slack.
“Everyone—even our GM and assistant GM—comes into work ready to work the front desk, but they have a change of clothes to start making beds or fold laundry. Everyone’s working,” he said. “Rather than being able to think about what’s going to happen in the fall, it’s more of just, ‘Let’s take care of day-to-day operations.‘ There’s not a whole lot of building toward anything right now.”
On the association level, Crawford says the AHLA is working to ensure a better, more expedited situation in 2018 than what happened this year. On Capitol Hill, the organization is fighting to not only change the nature of the H-2B program, but also the timing.
“We’re going to continue to lobby for relief under the cap, through a returning worker exemption, which would allow for more visas. We’ll also continue to lobby for legislation that reforms the program altogether. We cannot continue to do this on an annual basis; there needs to be a wholesale fix of the program in perpetuity,” said Crawford. “One idea being floated by the Department of Labor is to potentially break the cap up into four quarters, so that those companies who have later seasons would still have visas available to them later in the year.”
For the rest of 2017 though, many affected hoteliers like DeLois and Diment will need to figure out an alternate means of getting through the peak season. At the Beachmere, nine temporary workers—mostly college students and J1 visa holders—are set to leave their jobs in September, following two prior departures come August, which hangs over Diment like a dark cloud. She rushed to complete her new H-2B application when the extra 15,000 visas were released, and now all she can do is wait, hope and reassure others.
“Right now, I’m working with every year-round employee, trying to talk them off the ledge. They’re all at their wit’s end, so it’s become a morale and training problem, and an overtime problem,” she said. “I have to find some good news for them this fall, or else I’m not going to have anyone to clean the rooms.”