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Lack of visa workers has Cape and Islands hotspots in a bind

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

With workers in short supply, Todd Barry, the owner of Moby Dick’s in Wellfleet, has struggled to fill his staff.

By Globe Staff 

The Fourth of July has come and gone, and for Cape and Islands employers grappling with a worker shortage, reality has set in. This is going to be a rough summer.

Businesses are getting by — hiring anyone who walks in the door, bringing on more students, even giving shifts to foreign workers brought to the United States by other companies, which is against the law. But training and overtime costs are starting to pile up, and some employers have had to turn away banquet business and cancel landscaping contracts, for example, because they don’t have enough employees.

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The popular PB Boulangerie Bistro in Wellfleet is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays due to difficulty finding staff. On the morning of the Fourth, a Nantucket innkeeper got a frantic call from another inn desperate for housekeepers, but had no one to spare. At least one Cape Cod cleaning company has started bringing in workers from Puerto Rico who are US citizens and don’t need work visas.

The shortage stems from a change to the H-2B seasonal visa program that limited the number of foreign workers businesses could hire, despite a soaring need. An unknown number of additional visas are set to be granted at the end of the month, but that won’t get people here in time for the August rush.

Relying on inexperienced employees instead of foreign workers who come to the Cape every summer means slower service and more mistakes. Some workers had been employed by the same hotel or restaurant for decades. And with staff stretched to the limit, even just one person calling in sick can lead to a mad scramble to find a replacement.

“Every time I hear my phone beep I think uh-oh, who’s not coming in tonight?” said Tom Fusaro, who had to close the 50-seat dining room at his Italian restaurant on Nantucket one night this week when two cooks were unable to work, although he managed to keep the patio open. “At any given moment the house of cards can collapse.”

Come September, when high school and college students return to school, things could get even more precarious.

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One Cape restaurant owner has resorted to hiring other businesses’ H-2B workers, which is illegal, including a man who did not know the difference between white and wheat bread but is working a second job in the restaurant’s kitchen.

“You can’t fire people, because there’s no one to replace them,” said the restaurant owner, who asked not to be identified. “I’m not making it work. I’m making it not totally collapse.”

The problem began last fall when Congress did not reauthorize an exemption that removes returning foreign workers from the annual H-2B visa cap of 66,000: 33,000 in the summer and 33,000 in the winter. With demand high and supply low, the limit for the summer season was reached in mid-March, earlier than ever.

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security said it would issue an undetermined number of additional visas to businesses that would be “irreparably harmed and at risk of closing their doors” if they don’t get more workers. But details of how businesses must prove their need have not been released. The visas also wouldn’t be issued until late July at the earliest, and the processing and vetting times mean workers likely couldn’t start until September.

US Representative Bill Keating, whose district includes Cape Cod and the and Islands, said the additional visas would have a “marginal benefit,” but what is really needed is a long-term fix.

Before the season began, the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce anticipated a loss of about 1,000 foreign workers out of a seasonal workforce of about 15,000 because of the changes.

With so many employers relying heavily on students, who tend to be less reliable, turnover has increased. At Moby Dick’s seafood restaurant in Wellfleet, four US students hired to make up for the lack of H-2B workers have already quit. One e-mailed the day she was supposed to start to say her plans had changed; another lasted only a weekend.

“H-2B workers, they’ll stay with you,” said owner Todd Barry. “If they don’t, they have to leave the country.”

The foreign worker visa program has come under fire from both the political left and right, and concern that foreign workers are taking jobs away from US citizens has increased under the “Buy American and Hire American” executive order issued in April by President Trump, despite the fact that his Palm Beach club Mar-a-Lago employs dozens of foreign workers.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Kevon Sinclair, from Jamaica, holds an H-2B work visa. He’s working for a third season at Moby Dick’s.

Work regulations in the J-1 student visa, a cultural exchange program that allows foreign students to work and travel in the United States during their summer vacations, are also under review, which is distressing employers relying heavily on foreign students this year.

Business owners stress that they would hire locals if they could, but most of them don’t want seasonal jobs scrubbing toilets or steaming lobsters.

In anticipation of the H-2B limits, Framingham immigration lawyer Keith Pabian helped connect his hospitality clients with foreign workers who were already working in the United States over the winter — at ski resorts and in Florida — and therefore did not have to reapply for a visa and are not subject to the cap. H-2B workers are allowed to stay for three years continuously on the same visa as long as they have jobs lined up.

Some of Pabian’s higher-end clients went on recruiting trips to winter resorts around the country and got in bidding wars with other companies in an attempt to attract workers who already have visas.

But dozens of smaller employers with fewer resources are still scrambling, including a resort on Lake Champlain in Vermont that considered buying a school bus to drive around the state and pick up workers who didn’t have a way to get there.

“That’s just the level of desperation in a lot of these organizations,” Pabian said.

In anticipation of continued visa issues next year, the Harborside Inn on Martha’s Vineyard is beefing up its partnership with several Vermont ski resorts to share workers between the winter and summer seasons, although most don’t want to stay that long, said general manager Joe Badot.

“They want to go home to their families, but if it means the ability to work again for us next spring and summer, they would definitely stay for the winter,” he said. “They need the money badly.”

Steve Lam, owner of the Wellfleet cleaning and linen rental company the Furies, is also looking ahead to next season. He found a loophole — hiring workers from Puerto Rico who don’t need a visa — but he was unwilling to disclose the name of the agency he worked with, in case the visa shortage continues. “It’s almost like a secret sauce,” he said.

As employers have become more desperate for workers, hiring standards drop, they say. Kitchen staff who can barely cook a burger get a pass, as do workers who show up late, don’t follow orders, or just plain don’t seem to care.

At the Nantucket Inn, general manager Scott Thomas has hired people in the morning and put them to work that afternoon. “Nobody’s really checking references,” he said. “If a warm body walks through the door, you’re pretty much going to jump on them.”


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