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Mass. businesses say Trump’s ban on foreign-worker visas is making it difficult to fill jobs

Some fear the freeze will further harm an already reeling economy.

From left, Rolando Maldonado and Theo Hanlon, employees of the Gentle Giant Moving Company, moved furniture in Somerville.
From left, Rolando Maldonado and Theo Hanlon, employees of the Gentle Giant Moving Company, moved furniture in Somerville.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A national moving company based in Somerville can’t hire back the well-trained Eastern European workers it relies on every summer to supervise less-experienced crews. Restaurants on the Cape don’t have enough staffers on the payroll to open for regular business hours. Biotech executives in Cambridge worry that if they can’t easily recruit scientists from around the world, their companies’ ability to create life-saving medicines will be diminished.

These are some of the ways that President Trump’s freeze on new foreign work visas is rippling through the state’s economy, from businesses that count on workers from other countries for seasonal labor to technology companies that can’t find enough highly skilled job candidates in the United States.

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Tens of thousands of workers affected by the ban held jobs in Massachusetts last year, and analysts said that barring this workforce could be detrimental to an economy that’s already reeling from the pandemic.

Last month, the Trump administration said it was suspending new visas at least until the end of the year to keep jobs open for the millions of Americans laid off due to COVID-19-related closures and cutbacks. Many seasonal visa holders who usually arrive in the spring had already been delayed due to the pandemic, and Trump’s order quashed any hopes business owners had that they would come at all. Workers who had secured visas before the ban went into effect, however, are still allowed to use them.

The problem, employers say, is that many of the jobs affected by the freeze can’t necessarily be filled by Americans. Most of them don’t want the lower-wage jobs that are performed by H-2B visa holders who do seasonal work. As a result, the order could drive employers to hire undocumented immigrants already in the country, said Jonathan Haughton, an economics professor at Suffolk University.

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At the other end of the employment spectrum, there aren’t enough US workers with expertise in coding, chemistry, and biotechnology, Haughton said, which could prompt companies that rely on H-1B visa holders for skilled workers to start outsourcing jobs to other countries.

“If we’re not letting the people in, the jobs are going to go elsewhere,” said Keith Pabian, a Framingham corporate immigration lawyer. “The United States is not going to be at the top of the list anymore.”

One of Pabian’s clients, a Boston tech firm, recently decided to build an office in Ontario instead of the United States because of immigration restrictions put in place over the past few years.

“Companies turn to foreign nationals only because they have to,” said Pabian, who fears that between the pandemic and the inability to find workers, some small hospitality businesses will go under.

Eva Millona, cochair of the Massachusetts Business Immigration Coalition, said the visa suspension falls in line with Trump’s plan to keep foreigners out of the United States. In the past few months, she noted, he has expanded travel restrictions to the country, moved to bar aslyum seekers, and halted the issuing of green cards to keep people from immigrating to the United States.

“The current order is the latest attempt by this administration to use COVID-19 as a pretext to advance an extreme nativist agenda,” she said.

Gentle Giant Moving Co. of Somerville won’t be able to bring in most of the 100 H-2B workers it counts on every summer because of the ban, said owner Larry O’Toole. These foreign workers, largely from Lithuania and Romania, make a career out of moving furniture. Some have been coming back for 10 or 15 years, O’Toole said, and he relies on them to supervise employees and drive trucks across state lines. Without their expertise, he said, he can’t hire as many Americans to fill out his crews.

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“The demand for the work is there, but we wouldn’t have the quality of workers to actually service that work,” said O’Toole, who estimates he’s doing 70 percent of the business he’d normally do this time of year because of the employee shortage. “You can’t just hire people off the street.”

Mac Hay, who owns several seafood markets and restaurants on Cape Cod, as well as a wholesale seafood business, has closed several of his restaurants one day a week and stopped serving lunch during the week because he’s down about 70 workers — 50 H-2Bs and 20 J-1 cultural exchange visa holders, who are also temporarily barred — out of about 350 regular summertime employees.

Hay said he has been running ads “24/7” on Craigslist and Indeed and still can’t fill his open spots, despite the uptick in unemployed camp counselors and college students unsure of their fall plans — and the fact that he pays dishwashers $17 to $18 an hour on average.

“When people come down to the Cape and there’s a lack of service, don’t blame it on the pandemic,” Hay said. “There’s 20 million people unemployed in this country and I can’t find a dishwasher to save my life.”

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Between being limited to takeout-only during the spring and being unable to get foreign workers, he said, “We’re holding on by a thread.”

New England ski areas also rely on H-2B and J-1 employees, some of whom spend the summer working on the Cape before moving to the mountains.

At Killington Resort in Vermont, about 10 percent of the wintertime staff of 1,700 are visa holders, mainly working the lifts and in food and beverage service, said Judy Geiger, the resort’s human resources director. The area is so rural, she said, that it’s tough to find locals to do the work, or people willing to relocate there temporarily.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, said seasonal businesses struggling to find American workers need to do two things: Pay more and recruit better.

“The idea that we would be importing foreign workers when we have 20 million unemployed people is absurd, especially in the kinds of jobs we’re talking about,” he said. “If an employer can’t operate his business without importing cheap foreign labor to wash his dishes, then maybe that business shouldn’t exist.”

As for the more specialized H-1B positions, the vast majority are “routine talents doing routine labor,” he said. “This is not Einstein-level immigration.”

But being restricted to hiring only Americans, even temporarily, could hurt companies on the frontiers of medicine, said John Maraganore, chief executive of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge. Alnylam is working on a treatment for COVID-19, among other drugs, Maraganore said, and while there’s an exception to the visa ban for virus-related medical research, it’s unclear how that might apply to Alnylam.

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“The bottom line here is we need access to the best people around the world to do what we do as a business to fight disease,” said Maraganore, who has a few dozen H-1B visa holders on his staff of 1,000, who won’t be immediately affected by the freeze. “In general, anti-immigration policies just tip the balance in favor of disease over science and medicine.”


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.