ELLSWORTH — Earlier this month, the federal government announced that it would release an additional 35,000 H-2B visas ahead of the summer season, a move that was applauded by Maine’s business community and Governor Janet Mills.
“Last summer, Maine welcomed record numbers of visitors to our state, but many businesses were short-staffed because the pandemic worsened our already long-standing workforce shortage problem,” Mills said. “These additional visas will be a boost for our tourism and hospitality industry, helping fill jobs as they prepare for a busy summer season.”
The H-2B is a temporary foreign worker program, commonly referred to as a guestworker program. It allows for U.S. businesses to employ foreign workers on a temporary basis. It is a program that many businesses in the area have taken advantage of along with the J-1 visa program, which is a study- and work-related exchange program approved by the Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
There isn’t a specific allotment of H-2B visas available per state. Businesses must apply to the program and the visas are distributed nationally. In a typical summer, Maine needs an estimated 2,500 H-2B workers to support its tourism sector, according to Mills’ office. But in 2021 Maine businesses received approximately half of what was requested.
The larger pool of visas ahead of this summer season means a better chance for businesses in the area to receive them and fill some of the job vacancies that they may be struggling to fill.
The Maine Department of Labor says there are now more than two job openings for every one unemployed job seeker in the state, with multiple factors contributing to a decline in available workers.
“The demand for workers is so intense for Bar Harbor businesses, especially so for the seasonal hospitality industry, that every extra available worker is a difference-maker,” said Alf Anderson, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce. “The additional visa employees will allow a restaurant to remain open longer and more regularly and they will allow lodging businesses to offer the level of service that is expected by the guests in our area.”
Anderson’s counterpart, Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Gretchen Wilson, said it was difficult to see businesses go through what they did last summer with the lower number of H-2B visas exacerbating the employment shortage.
“I commend the businesses who had to make the hard decision to close for a day or two during the week because they didn’t have the staff; the businesses that said, ‘We cannot do this, we can’t sacrifice our remaining employees or our reputation by staying open without being adequately staffed.”
Wilson also cautioned that, while the additional visas would be helpful, there was still plenty of concern heading into this summer season.
“The H-2B visas would generally go to the larger businesses in the area who can afford to go through the application process and house the workers when they arrive,” Wilson explained. “And that would historically have freed up local workers to take jobs at the smaller businesses in the area. But we’re not seeing that this summer. Those workers are just gone. Businesses aren’t even getting applications. Or they’ll get somebody in, and that person leaves in two days. I’m absolutely worried about it.”
Wilson points to the proliferation of short-term rentals in the area as a contributing factor. The phenomenon has taken possible employees out of the traditional workforce because they’re now renting a unit themselves or working on the weekends to clean rentals.
While the increase in H-2B visas will help alleviate a portion of the hiring crunch ahead of the summer season, the business community warns that the issue is multifaceted, ever present and in need of creative solutions.
“In the wake of the pandemic, every aspect of our economic lives, including wages, benefits, flexibility, and workplace safety and culture is being re-examined,” said Jessica Picard, communications manager at the State of Maine Department of Labor. “Both employers and job seekers are looking for new ways to navigate in these rapidly changing times.”