By Brian Langley
Last summer, my wife and I were relieved when people were finally able to take advantage of safe outdoor dining. Our 25-year-old restaurant, the Union River Lobster Pot, had taken a beating during COVID: part of the estimated $2.3 billion loss in Maine’s tourism and hospitality industry. Come June 2020, we were eager to provide jobs for our staff and a safe place for our guests to eat.
But COVID wasn’t the only challenge that restaurants like ours faced last summer — and continue to face today. Then, as now, widespread worker shortages will cause many local restaurants and hotels to scale back, and even close before peak season ends in October. That’s partly because much of the hospitality workforce changed careers after losing work in 2020. But it’s also because the last administration froze the H-2B and J-1 visas that bring in temporary foreign workers during the high season. It’s why I signed the Maine Compact for Immigration, a bipartisan initiative of 95 Maine leaders who believe that our state’s economic future depends on welcoming immigration policies.
It’s not easy owning a business that’s dependent on a seasonal industry like summer tourism. If you can’t run your operation at 100 percent when the demand is there, owners can’t recoup sales. So, to dig ourselves out of the mess COVID created — and to take advantage of newly vaccinated travelers this summer — we’ll need enough workers to function at max capacity. But the proportion of working-age Mainers to tourists is way off. We have 1.3 million residents but received a whopping 37 million out-of-state visitors in 2019. By 2029, we’re estimated to lose 65,000 workers to retirement.
The freeze on these temporary visas expired March 31, which is good news. But the existing program is still riddled with problems. As a Compact signatory, I’m hoping Congress will address them. First, we need more visas. The national cap of 66,000 H-2B visas, reserved for temporary non-agriculture workers, doesn’t meet demand. Last year, employers requested more than three times the number of available visas. By February, the cap for 2021 had already been exceeded.
Second, application deadlines should be industry-specific instead of first come, first served. Currently, employers must apply when the H-2B program opens in January — whether the job starts in April or September. The sooner you apply, the sooner your workers arrive. But the majority of Maine restaurants don’t need seasonal workers until June. Third, the program is costly, especially when you count the fees for the lawyers hired to file the paperwork.
Maine is a wonderful state. Visitors love to come here to breathe fresh air and eat big lobsters by the ocean. But if we can’t hire enough workers to serve them, we won’t be able to rebound from COVID losses. Equally concerning are customer satisfaction ratings. Slow service, long lines, restricted hours and overworked staff lead to less than stellar reviews.
But there’s another thing. Having a robust workforce for the top-dollar months of July and August allows us to hire more Americans, pay higher wages, generate more taxable revenue for the state. It means our customers want to return to our restaurant — and to Maine. Maine’s economic recovery depends on getting the workers we need this summer. We literally cannot afford to let our tables sit empty.
Former state senator Brian Langley is the chef owner of Union River Lobster Pot in Ellsworth.