The Department of Homeland Security is allocating an additional 30,000 H-2B visas for foreign seasonal workers this fiscal year, the agency announced Friday, granting some relief to businesses on Cape Cod and other tourist destinations that can’t find enough Americans to cook and clean, and fill other low-wage jobs during the summer season.
The number of H-2B visas for this upcoming season is significantly higher than what the Trump administration has issued in previous years, and is all the more striking for a president who on Friday reinforced his hardline position on immigration by again threatening to close the US border with Mexico.
But access to foreign labor has become a major issue for seasonal businesses that have for years struggled with severe worker shortages. And even with the additional visas announced Friday, Cape and Islands employers say there will not be enough to go around and predict they will again begin the high season shorthanded
The new visas, which are in addition to the 33,000 already issued for jobs beginning April 1, will be available only to returning H-2B workers who have worked in the United States in the past three years. The agency has not said when employers can begin applying for them.
With a historically tight labor market and fewer Americans willing to do seasonal service work, the new visas are certain to be in high demand throughout the United States.
Businesses on the Cape and Islands typically apply for around 2,500 H-2B workers for summer work, and Wendy Northcross, president of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, estimates that roughly 1,000 additional seasonal workers are still needed this year. And while the additional visas will help, local employers aren’t likely to get enough of them to fill all their open positions.
“The minute they can apply, people are sitting there with their finger hovering over the send key,” she said.
Indeed, when the certification process for the initial 33,000 slots opened at midnight on Jan. 1, employers submitted requests for 97,800 workerss within the first five minutes, according to the Department of Labor. The volume was so intense it crashed the system.
Faced with the chronic worker shortage, employers on the Cape have been cutting back operating hours, closing for an extra day during the week, and turning away new business. Some owners worked seven days a week flipping burgers, busing tables, and cleaning up cigarette butts to make up for the staffing shortage.
“The opportunity for business growth was kind of stunted because they didn’t have the people,” Northcross said.
Some business owners even told her that they were considering retiring early.
At Nancy’s Restaurant & Snack Bar on Martha’s Vineyard, the worker shortage has been so intense the seafood restaurant switched to disposable cups and plates because it couldn’t find any dishwashers, closed its raw bar, and canceled a lucrative contract with a Chinese tour group.
Nancy’s typically relies on about a dozen workers from Jamaica who return every summer. But for the past few years the workers did not receive their visa approvals until late in the season, and this year Nancy’s still has not received approval for any of the 12 workers it applied for.
The restaurant, frequented by President Barack Obama when he vacationed on the island, also spends about $60,000 to put up its H-2B workers every summer. But because housing must be secured before workers are approved, Nancy’s has had to pay rent on empty units for several months before the workers arrive.
“By the time it’s all said and done, it’s 10 times more expensive to go through this process and hire H-2B workers than it would ever be if there were available American workers,” said Doug Abdelnour Jr., Nancy’s general manager, whose grandfather opened the restaurant in 1960.
The idea that employers are trying to save money by hiring foreign workers is a complete myth, he said. The whole system is “beyond crazy,” he said, including the fact that the program is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security.
“DHS is worried about buildings blowing up,” he said. “They clearly don’t care about people’s dishwashers or food runners.”
The visa program attracts workers from Caribbean and Eastern European countries. Having more of them and other foreign workers to keep shops open also helps the Americans employed in these businesses, said US Representative Bill Keating, whose district includes the Cape and Islands and who has been working for years to increase the number of visas for temporary workers.
“This is something that helps a lot of local year-round people that look forward to supplementing their income with these jobs,” he said.
Yet foreign worker visas are a hot-button issue for Democrats and Republicans alike. Labor groups on the left contend they depress wages and can lead to worker abuse, while groups on the right say they are abused by foreigners who may stay on illegally.
But employers have become increasingly vocal about how much the labor shortage is hurting their businesses. Trump himself has relied on the visas to fill jobs at some of his properties; in October, his Palm Beach club, Mar-a-Lago, requested visas for 78 cooks, housekeepers, and servers.
The number of visas issued every year is capped at 33,000 each for the summer and winter seasons — and then adjusted. Last year, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen raised the cap by 15,000 at the end of May; the previous year, it was raised by 15,000 in July.
Nielsen made the decision this year after consulting with Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and determining that US workers would not be harmed, the agency said.
As it has in years past, the Department of Homeland Security on Friday noted that the responsibility to overhaul the program lies with Congress.
“Congress is in the best position to know the ‘right’ number of H-2B visas that American businesses should be allocated without harming American workers,” the agency said in a statement. “We look forward to working with Congress so it can set an appropriate numerical limitation moving forward.”Katie Johnston can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.