Business

Fierce competition for foreign workers could alter Cape and Islands tourist season

Born in St. Lucia and now a US citizen, sous chef John Maynard prepared fish filets at the Breeze Restaurant at the Nantucket Hotel & Resort.
Rob Benchley for The Boston Globe
Born in St. Lucia and now a US citizen, sous chef John Maynard prepared fish filets at the Breeze Restaurant at the Nantucket Hotel & Resort.

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There’s not a lot happening on the Cape and Islands in early April, with relatively few tourists interested in venturing out on raw, rainy days.

But following last summer’s labor shortage, a number of hotels and restaurants that normally don’t ramp up until later in the spring are looking to do so early in order to be first in line for a limited number of foreign workers.

Jan. 1 is the first day business owners can apply for these workers, who come on H-2B visas and make up an increasingly crucial part of the tourism industry’s labor force as fewer and fewer Americans apply for seasonal service jobs. This year, the Department of Labor received applications for more than 81,000 positions on Jan. 1, three times the number received on that day in 2017, blowing past the national summer season cap of 33,000 workers.

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But employers who apply for H-2B workers Jan. 1 are compelled to put them on the payroll full-time within 90 days, or face penalties and audits the next time around. This means starting them on April 1, well before the tourist season kicks off.

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Businesses don’t necessarily have to open their doors April 1, but they do have to prove that they need workers then. They also have to begin paying their foreign workers on that date — provided they arrive on time, which they sometimes don’t. And those paychecks could eat into profits.

At the same time, employers who typically file on Jan. 1 are worried not only about the increased competition for workers, but also about the increased competition from other businesses opening early and vying for the rare early springtime tourist. Off-season tourist numbers have increased on Cape Cod in recent years, but hotel occupancy rates are still less than 50 percent in April. The potential increase in early openings has even spurred a marketing campaign on Nantucket to attract tourists to the island in the chilly days at the beginning of April.

Peter Okun, owner of the Purple Feather Cafe and Treatery in Provincetown, who always files for workers to start April 1, when he moves from weekend hours to full time, said he’s concerned about the increased number of businesses applying early. Besides worrying that he won’t get his Jamaican workers, Okun, who serves breakfast and lunch and makes gelato and chocolates in-house, is concerned that there won’t be enough business for everyone that early in the season.

“Part of what makes the early spring open work for us is that there aren’t that many other places open yet,” he said. “If everybody who does H-2B opens in April . . . at the very best it’s just going to spread people out and everybody’s not going to do great. And at the worst, they’ll squeeze me out completely.”

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Last year’s labor crunch was caused by Congress’s failure to pass an exemption that removes returning workers from the cap, as they had in years past, and the exemption appears to be off the table once again.

Some put the blame on President Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” directive and his crackdown on immigration. But the H-2B program gets hammered from both sides of the aisle. Conservatives are concerned that foreign workers will stay on illegally, and liberals think the system leads to work abuse and depressed wages.

But the process is rigorous — with required recruiting of American workers before visas are approved, wages set by the Department of Labor that are sometimes well above market rate, and audits to ensure the need is real.

Some worry that the overwhelming need for workers will cause more of them to come to the United States without the proper paperwork, or to overstay their visas once they get here, forcing desperate business owners to pay them off the books. The sharing of workers among businesses, which is not allowed, would also likely increase.

“You’re literally inviting illegal immigration,” said a Cape business owner who asked not to be identified. “You either go out of business or you fill that demand one way or another.”

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Demand is so intense that many employers who applied Jan. 1. know exactly how many minutes after midnight their visa applications were filed. The Department of Labor recently announced that the system was so strained that it would not begin certifying applications that meet all requirements until Feb. 20, granted in sequential order based on when the original applications were received. Once their requests are certified, employers must file a petition with Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Department of Homeland Security, and only then can workers go to their home-country embassies for interviews and background checks.

After struggling to get through last season, employers who were concerned about getting shut out again jumped on the April 1 start date to increase the odds that they could get in before the 33,000 cap is hit. Framingham immigration lawyer Keith Pabian worked through the weekend before New Year’s Eve so he was ready to start filing H-2B visa applications the second the ball dropped at midnight. Last year, he processed about 10 on Jan. 1; this year, he filed 100, noting that each of them had a legitimate business reason to do so.

Yarmouth Port attorney Mark Carchidi, who also spent his New Year’s holiday filing H-2B applications, said that the labor shortage in 2016 prompted a number of his clients to move up their opening day to April 1 last year in order to have payroll and tax records this year showing the need for staff early in the season.

The president of the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce was one of several business leaders who wrote letters that employers could use to help make a case for an April 1 start date this year. Workers, he wrote, are needed to “service the influx of visitors when ferry service begins, motor coaches arrive, and the season begins starting with April vacation,” he wrote, noting that “new H-2B workers coming in April have a time period to be trained properly.”

One restaurateur on the Cape who decided to apply on Jan. 1 this year is planning to push his opening day from mid-May to mid-April, provided he gets the nine H-2B workers he applied for. Before he opens his doors, he plans to have the workers process scallops and do some cleaning — and whatever else he can think of.

“It’s the price you have to pay to get the help when you need it,” said the owner, who asked not to be identified. “This is what the government is forcing us to do.”

The Nantucket Hotel & Resort has moved up its request for workers from mid to late April to April 1 for the past two years so it wouldn’t “miss the boat,” said general manager Jamie Holmes. As it is, Holmes considers himself lucky if workers arrive in time for the Daffodil Festival at the end of April, the first big weekend of the year.

Together with the hotel’s sister property on Martha’s Vineyard, Winnetu Oceanside Resort, which opens April 15, up to 80 H-2B workers are needed every year to work as housekeepers, cooks, waiters, and front desk clerks, Holmes said. And having all these people on the payroll a few weeks longer than in the past is worth it if it means the hotels will have a full crew. “If they’re here, you don’t have to worry about whether they’re coming,” Holmes said.

During downtime at the Nantucket Hotel, which is open 11 months out of the year, employees learn the computer system, take classes, and get accustomed to the culture of the hotel and the island.

In an attempt to draw tourists to the island earlier in the season, the Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce is relying on a marketing tactic that has worked before: The Daffodil Festival and the Christmas Stroll were started in the early 1970s to extend the tourist season, and properties routinely sell out during those events.

Especially after a cold winter, people are always ready to start thinking about an escape, said David Martin, executive director of the Nantucket Chamber.

“If the workers are going to be here,” he said, “we need to try and do everything we can to create some activity and business on the island.”

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