BAR HARBOR — Several seasonal businesses are opening later than usual, and cutting back hours, after not being granted visas for temporary foreign workers.
“We have delayed our opening by a week, and we will only be serving dinner until we are adequately staffed,” said Gail Leiser, co-owner of Galyn’s in Bar Harbor.
This year, as has been the case for the last several years, the demand for H-2B visas by seasonal employers has far outweighed the supply.
Around the corner at West Street Cafe, co-owner Jessica DesVeaux said her business did not receive any of the visas she applied for.
“The entire situation is very frustrating, as we depend on these workers to supplement our great local workforce,” DesVeaux said.
“Because of the lack of staff … we have been forced to open several weeks later than last year,” she said. “These weeks we are closed, our local staff are missing out on valuable money they need to carry them through the long Maine winter. We’ve also considered not opening in the evenings once we do open, unless we can secure enough kitchen staff to operate adequately.”
Though the cap on the number of H-2B visas has not changed from last year, applications by businesses have skyrocketed.
The U.S. Department of Labor announced on Jan. 6 that 96,400 applications for H-2B visas had been received. With the semi-annual cap set at 33,000, that is nearly three times the amount of visas allotted.
That deficit has left many businesses without the employees they’ve come to rely on.
Leiser said her business has been working with foreign workers here on H-2Bs since 2007. It “was a business decision we made … because we felt we had to,” she said. “It helped us stay in business.”
That’s what the program was designed for: to allow business owners to apply to hire temporary foreign workers when local employees are not available.
On March 29, U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King announced in a joint press release that the Department of Homeland Security was lifting the cap to make an additional 30,000 H-2B visas available, but only for returning workers who have held a seasonal visa in at least one of the past three fiscal years.
“It’s not ideal, but we’ll take it,” said Marcus Jaynes, a Portland immigration attorney who works with Bar Harbor area businesses.
“I hope 30,000 will be enough for everybody,” he said. “I had several clients who were able to get in under the cap, but several more who weren’t able to.”
Jaynes said the requirement that the additional 30,000 H-2B visas go to returning employees complicates the application process.
“It presents some challenges because [employers] have to identify their workers before they can file.” However, he noted that most local employers “have returning employees they can name.”
Leiser said she plans to apply for visas now that more have been made available.
If she doesn’t get the visas she applies for, Leiser said “we expect a 60 percent reduction in our business, which will negatively affect all our employees here. We’ll have to reduce our dining room section, [because] two people can’t cook what four people normally do.”
“We’ve had the same challenges [as other businesses],” said Eben Salvatore, who manages operations for the group of local hotels owned by Ocean Properties.
“It’s never a smooth process,” he said. The company got some of the visas it applied for this year, “but not all.”
Witham Family Hotels, the area’s other large hotel group, has some employees on H-2B visas who apply to stay in the country year-round for up to three years. They migrate between “counter-seasonal properties” — winter businesses such as hotels in Florida or ski resorts, and summer businesses here.
The Witham hotels face some uncertainties in staffing, according to Patrick Morgan, the group’s president and general counsel, but “we don’t anticipate having to change our hours … We have people working year-round to ensure adequate staffing.”
To put together a workforce for the busy season, Morgan said, “we use as many sources as possible; most importantly local workers. We’ve been blessed with a high percentage of workers that come back year after year.”
The biggest factor making it difficult to hire local, he said, is “the cost of living on the island. It’s hard.”
Many local employees commute from off-island, he said.
The company supplements local workers with J1 (college student) and H-2B workers, many of whom also return year after year, Morgan said.