The Department of Homeland Security last week announced sweeping changes to its H-2B visa program for seasonal workers, including nearly doubling the visa cap in 2023 and streamlining aspects of the hiring process — making island companies excited but still cautious , since they are already beginning preparations for next summer.
The H-2B visa program allows employers to temporarily hire non-citizens to perform non-farm work in the United States, provided companies can demonstrate that the positions cannot be filled with local workers.
Island businesses have traditionally relied on the H-2B and J-1 visas (which go to foreign students) to supplement the summer workforce, with hundreds of foreign workers entering the island’s hospitality and food service industries. However, in recent years the program has been subject to new Covid regulations and travel restrictions, creating uncertainty and instability for the seasonal businesses that depend on it.
These issues have been the subject of intense lobbying by local politicians and businesses, who have pushed for an increase in the cap and a reduction in bureaucracy.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas apparently responded to some of those concerns last week, writing in a press release that the Biden administration, in consultation with the Department of Labor, has increased the cap on H-2B visas, which would need to be supplemented by an additional 30,000 in 2022 In 2023, Mr Mayorkas wrote, the surcharge will be raised to 64,000.
Congressman Bill Keating, whose district includes the Cape, Islands and the state’s south coast, praised the increase and was quick to note that the additional visas will be awarded earlier in the year, giving employers more planning time for hiring.
In years past, the federal government has often delayed raising the cap until mid-season, forcing companies to scramble when they need workers most.
While most companies welcomed the move, some questioned whether the cap increase was big enough. — Tim Johnson
“This encompasses so much of what I’ve been urging her to do for over a decade,” Cong said. Keating said. “Number one, they’re almost doubling [the cap]. And number two, they are announcing this now and this is so crucial for doing business on the island.”
Mr Keating said the program used to favor seasonal businesses during the winter as they hired first and used up a large chunk of the total visa allotment. Mr Keating said the new changes will even help the pitch.
“They’re going to have one rule that governs the entire calendar year,” Mr. Keating said. “That doesn’t sound like much, but they used to have a first-half rule, a second-half rule. Now they’re holding back to make sure there are enough workers for the second half. Now there is certainty in time, certainty in rules.”
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Martha’s Vineyard businesses received at least 138 H-2B visa workers in the summer of 2022. The vast majority of these workers were employed in hospitality, about 40 in the hospitality sector at Edgartown’s Harbor View Hotel. Other large H-2B employers include Edgartown Commons, the Harborside Inn, and Murdick’s Fudge, each employing between 5 and 20 H-2B workers.
In the summer of 2022, the number of H-2B visas increased sharply compared to the summers of 2020 and 2021 as the pandemic restricted access to foreign workers and the island only had about 50 workers per year.
Harbor View Hotel general manager Scott Little said the new changes would help the hotel, which employs more than 200 staff during peak season, plan for the coming summer – a process he says began as early as August .
“If the US has workforce problems, we’ll have a cold at Martha’s Vineyard,” said Mr. Little. “As the federal government increases the number of visas, it will be all the more possible for seasonal and remote hotels like ours to strengthen the team with qualified and strong manpower.”
Other companies agreed that the expansion was a step in the right direction.
“It’s huge,” said Marilyn Vukota, an attorney who works with about 15 companies on the island to use the program. Under the old system, Ms Vukota explained, the visas initially available for the second half of the fiscal year could be followed by additional visas in March or April, distributed via a lottery system. She agreed with Mr. Keating that the delay made planning for the summer difficult.
“A lot of these business owners have to sit in limbo,” she said.
Mike McCourt, General Manager of Murdick’s Fudge, was thrilled to see all 64,000 visas issued earlier this year.
“If they come earlier, we can set things up and get things rolling,” he said. “The last three years have been terrible. You just sit at your computer and wait for an email.”
Changes have helped streamline the H-2B visa process for businesses, although challenges remain. — Tim Johnson
Even in 2022, when the visa cap was raised slightly, Mr. Little said Harbor View had a terrible draw in the initial visa lottery. They were only able to increase their staff in the middle of the season, when the federal government decided at the last minute to increase the cap. “We had to wait and wait and wait and wait,” said Mr. Little. “We flew in dishwashers from Tennessee, business class, just to make sure we could operate.”
Most H-2B workers at Murdick, McCourt said, come back every season, and until a rule change in 2016, these repeat visa holders didn’t count against the visa cap. “We’ve lost a few key people since then,” he said. “It puts us in a position that was a bit unreliable.”
Other managers on the island are less optimistic about the changes. Steve Bernier, the former owner of Cronig’s Market who is still heavily involved in the operation, said the challenges during the pandemic prompted the grocery store to walk away from H-2B employees.
“We used H-2B visas three years ago,” he said. “But for the past two years we haven’t been able to get anyone down the Well.”
Because of visa problems, he said, 20 workers were laid off last summer. Mr Bernier has little hope that the changes will improve the system, citing anti-immigration sentiment and the fact that some Visa workers have moved to other countries where it is easier to find work.
Julia Clement-Gentossio, the new managing director of the Edgartown Commons hotel, laughed when presented with the 33,000 increase in the visa cap, saying it was nowhere near enough to address the labor shortage. She said the hotel had a difficult season last year.
“We have housekeepers who have been coming here for 14 to 20 years,” she said. “They know this place, they run this place.”
When a low spot in the lottery delayed the arrival of longtime staff early in the season, the hotel had to open a month later than usual and pay a significantly higher housekeeping fee before the usual staff arrived on July 7th.
“You live in limbo, you overspend, you eat up your budget,” Ms Clement-Gentossio said.
Companies said there are other factors that still make the H-2B and J1 recruitment process challenging, including a highly competitive hiring market and high legal fees. Mr. Little said that the Harbor View spends tens of thousands of dollars a year just handling the legal paperwork for foreign workers and that the recruitment system is so competitive that the hotel provides workers with bicycles, multiple meals a day and lodging must guarantee. The hotel is home to nearly 150 staff during the peak season, Mr Little said, including staff who also work at other companies.
Despite the challenges, Harbor View still plans to aggressively pursue Visa workers in the summer of 2023.
“This is the federal government’s positive response to the need,” Mr. Little said. “Is that enough? Good question. I don’t quite understand what the demand is. But it’s always a big Tetris game to put those pieces together.”
And the demand for labour, he said, continues to grow.
“If they tripled the number next year, surely every visa would be taken,” he said.