Susana Enriquez and Mitchell Freedman, Newsday (Melville, New York), April 5, 2007
Year after year, Dune Management depends on dozens of Dominican and Jamaican housekeeping and laundry workers to get through the summer season in the Hamptons. But this year, federal officials surprised the company when they denied temporary visas for the workers.
“If we don’t get them, I don’t know what we would do,” said Carolina Swanson, director of human resources for the company, which manages 16 resort and residential properties on the South Fork. “I really don’t have a Plan B.”
Hamptons businesses like Dune Management are worried that the summer season could turn into a disaster because the U.S. Department of Labor has rejected at least 500 H-2B visas for which dozens of South Fork businesses had applied, said Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton).
“I have never seen a bigger disaster than the Department of Labor has created this year,” said Libby Whitley, president of Mid-Atlantic Solutions, a Virginia-based agency that handles the petitioning process for employers in several states, including New York.
The problems, she said, started last year when the Labor Department closed its regional processing centers and opened two national centers, diminishing a staff that had years of expertise in foreign labor certification. Along with that came a stricter review by federal officials, she said.
Nationwide, the department has experienced a 40 percent increase in requests for H-2B visas, which has also led to delays in processing, Bishop said.
The state Labor Department has seen a 10 percent increase in applications, from 776 last year to 834 so far this year, said spokeswoman Chris Perham.
In 2004, the most recent year for which data are available, the United States issued work visas for 86,958 workers, down from 120,833 in 2003. Local numbers were not available.
At Gurney’s Inn, visas for one-third of its work force were denied by federal officials, said general manager Paul Monte.
Gurney’s, which has participated in the program for 15 years, filed three petitions for 90 workers from the Caribbean, South America and Eastern Europe, Monte said.
One petition for 30 housekeeping workers was denied for “haphazard” reasons, he said. The duration of employment was worded differently on two documents: “mid-March to New Year’s Day” was listed on one and “March 15 to Jan. 3” was on another. Also, the ‘Help Wanted’ ads that were submitted were not original tear sheets.
The inn plans to fill the void with college students from Prague, who will come to the country on J-1 visas and work from June to September.
Tish Rehill, the owner of Gardeneering in Southampton, submitted a petition for 42 workers from Mexico. She was denied certification as a seasonal business, although landscaping is generally classified as such.
If her business is still denied, Rehill said, there are three possible scenarios: the business goes bankrupt, her workers enter the country illegally, or she hires undocumented immigrants who are already in the country.
“The government is doing nothing to make things easier,” she said.
Permit’s purpose. H-2B nonimmigrant work permits are issued to foreign nationals who want jobs in the U.S. for a limited time, filling positions that employers certify cannot be met by the local work force.
Length of stay. H-2B applications are good for up to 10 months, but on Long Island workers normally come in March and stay until around Labor Day.
The workers. In the Hamptons, H-2B employees are bartenders and dock hands, work in kitchens and in outdoor maintenance crews. Many live in dorms provided by employers. Across the country, seasonal workers can be found at beach resorts in the summer and at ski resorts in the winter.
The job. H-2B workers must be paid prevailing wages, and firms seeking H-2B permits must first advertise locally to fill jobs.
The changes. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Servicesformerly INSimposed a cap of 66,000 new H-2B permits for the 2007 federal fiscal year, which was reached on March 16. However, people who worked in this country under an H-2B permit during the past three years do not count against that cap limit.