Business

Desperation setting in as Cape employers look to Puerto Rico for seasonal workers

Provincetown Inn managing partner Derek Evans talks to a man at a job fair at the Puerto Rico Toursim Company headquarters to recruit 20 candidates to work the summer season in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, May 9, 2018. Desperate for summer workers after not getting approval for H-2B visas, employers from Cape Cod are trying to recruit workers from the U.S. Territory, has many Puerto Ricans are still out of work following Hurricane Maria. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti for Boston Globe)
Carlos Giusti for Boston Globe
Provincetown Inn managing partner Derek Evans talks to a man at a job fair at the Puerto Rico Toursim Company headquarters in San Juan, Puerto Rico, earlier this month to recruit 20 candidates to work the summer season in Cape Cod.

SAN JUAN — With a backpack slung over his shoulders and a stack of pamphlets in one hand, the owner of the Provincetown Inn walked the streets of the Puerto Rican capital recently, searching for potential employees.

“Hola, looking for workers in the United States,” Evan Evans told employees standing in restaurant doorways. “We’re looking for waiters and bartenders and cooks.”

A man selling jewelry on the sidewalk examined photos of the sun-splashed seaside resort in the Spanish-language brochure. “This is Massachusetts?” he said skeptically. “They always show it like it’s freezing.”

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This is what the scramble for workers looks like for business owners on Cape Cod and in other summer vacation spots who are starting the summer season with only skeleton staffs in place. With employees in short supply and critical foreign-worker visas harder to come by than ever, Evans and others turned their eyes more than 1,600 miles south in hopes of salvation.

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As American citizens, Puerto Ricans don’t need H-2B visas to work in the United States. And following the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria last fall, a number of businesses are still closed for repairs. The unemployment rate is nearly 10 percent.

It seemed like a perfect match, maybe even a long-term solution. But it hasn’t exactly gone as planned.

A job fair set up by the Puerto Rican Tourism Company in coordination with the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce — originally intended for multiple employers but limited to just the Provincetown Inn at the last minute because of permitting issues — brought in only a handful of people.

Evans and his son Derek, the inn’s managing partner, spent two days in a mostly empty room, fiddling with their phones, doing crossword puzzles, and talking about contacting staffing agencies as a last resort. One candidate they did meet had just returned from a landscaping job in Colorado, but he spoke limited English and struggled to understand their questions.

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The inn proprietors were in need of 17 workers to make up for the 20 H-2B slots they sought but didn’t get. They were hoping to come back from Puerto Rico with nine or 10, but only ended up with three — one a man they met in San Juan, and later, two of his friends.

The results were disappointing, said Derek Evans, but if those three hires turn into more next year through word of mouth, and a few more after that, it will have been worth it. But for now, “It’s too soon to tell.”

In the meantime, the inn is still looking for workers, and Memorial Day weekend — the kickoff to the summer tourism season — is here.

Many employers are in the same unsteady boat. Businesses on the Cape and Islands applied for more than 2,500 H-2B workers this year, according to a Globe review of Department of Labor data, but the Cape Cod Chamber expects them to get only about half that.

“We’re going crazy here,” said Josh Gamsey, general manager at the Pleasant Bay Village Resort in Chatham, who had planned to send two managers to the Puerto Rico job fair. Normally, he has 12 full-time housekeepers to clean 58 rooms, but so far this year, he only has four. Gamsey is so desperate he’s paying a recruiter $2,000 a head for two housekeepers from Puerto Rico, plus airfare and other costs, with no guarantee that they’ll have experience or speak English.

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Another local employer Gamsey knows shelled out $20,000 for 10 workers.

“There’s nobody here that will do those jobs,” said Gamsey, noting that he’s cobbled together enough part-time and student help to get by. “It just keeps getting worse and worse.”

Tighter restrictions on H-2B visas, and a growing demand for workers, are a big part of the problem. The annual visa cap is limited to 66,000 workers nationally, divided equally between the summer and winter seasons. Previously, Congress had approved exemptions that removed returning foreign workers from the cap, but for the past two seasons, thousands of workers whom employers relied on year after year — on the Cape, many are from Jamaica —have been counted as part of the 66,000.

At the same time, a widespread labor shortage fueled by a 3.9 percent national unemployment rate and a dearth of Americans willing to do seasonal service work has led to a huge increase in demand for foreign workers.

For the summer season, the US Department of Labor received applications for more than 81,000 positions on Jan. 1, the first day requests could be submitted for the 33,000 slots — three times the number received on that day the year before. To deal with the surge, Citizenship and Immigration Services, which processes the certified requests, instituted a random lottery instead of the usual first-come, first-served system, and many Cape businesses were shut out entirely.

The Department of Homeland Security has the authority to lift the cap, but so far has not done so this year.

Business owners are required to advertise jobs locally before they apply for H-2B workers, and they would happily hire Americans if they could, they say. But few US residents have an interest in making beds and flipping burgers. Despite the need, many politicians have been reluctant to advocate for lifting the cap, and with President Trump in office, the “Hire American” sentiment has grown even stronger.

“Nobody wants to touch this issue because it looks anti-American,” said Mac Hay, owner of Mac’s Seafood, which operates three restaurants and three fish markets on the Outer Cape. “It’s so frustrating that this has become an immigration issue, and it’s not. It’s a small business issue.”

Hay, who this year only got 25 of the 70 H-2B visas he applied for, traveled to Puerto Rico with other local business owners in late January in hopes of hiring up to a dozen workers, but came back with just a cook and a dishwasher. The labor crunch is causing Hay, after 23 years, to rethink his business plan, including expanding into less isolated locations on the Cape where there are more available workers and year-round opportunities.

Mac Hay (left), owner of Mac's Seafood, which operates three restaurants and three fish markets on Cape Cod, works with with one of his many H-2B visa employees, Robert Campbell, of Jamaica, at Mac’s Seafood Market in Wellfleet, MA. Campbell is finishing up his third season working at Mac's. Hay was one of the lucky business owners who received many H-2B visa employees this year. "I feel very fortunate to have received the visas that did but I'm also incredibly unsure about the future," he says, 09/22/17 Julia Cumes for the Boston Globe
Julia Cumes for the Boston Globe
Mac Hay (left), owner of Mac's Seafood, which operates three restaurants and three fish markets on Cape Cod, works with with one of his many H-2B visa employees, Robert Campbell, of Jamaica, at Mac’s Seafood Market in Wellfleet in September 2017.

Puerto Rico, where at least 16 hotels are still closed or have limited operations due to storm damage, is not proving to be the solution many employers had hoped it would be.

Many people have already left to seek employment in the United States, a Labor Department official said, including those hired by a steady stream of US companies that have been recruiting workers since the hurricane hit. Some have been sent to work at sister resorts; others might live outside San Juan or not have Internet service and therefore don’t hear about job fairs or other employment opportunities.

Puerto Ricans who sought refuge in Massachusetts following the hurricane — the state has provided services to more than 7,700 evacuees, according to the Baker administration — haven’t been a big source of seasonal workers on the Cape, either. Many are mothers who need child care in order to work, said Sharon Martin of the Greater New Bedford Career Center, which has placed about 40 Puerto Rican evacuees and has 50 more in need of work. Language is also a barrier. The evacuees also don’t want to relocate again, especially for a seasonal job, or would need transportation there and back, she said. Plus, there are many nearby employers looking to hire workers. “It’s a competitive market,” she said.

Peter Hall, owner of Catch of the Day and Van Rensselaer’s Restaurant & Raw Bar in Wellfleet, attended the job fair in Puerto Rico with Hay and other Cape employers in January. Hall got none of the seven H-2B workers he applied for this year and said he is in “panic mode” trying to find four cooks.

But after spending roughly $2,500 on job fair ads, recruiting fees, and his airfare and hotel, Hall only ended up with one dishwasher from Puerto Rico. He is making phone calls to friends around the country in the hospitality business, but they are also short-staffed. Meanwhile, he has cut back the schedule to give his already overworked staff some time off, closing on Mondays and only serving breakfast on the weekends for now.

“I used to have a packet about an inch thick of applications by June 1,” he said. “Now you almost have to go by the pulse rule: Do they have one?”

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