Summer Employers Brace for Shortage of Foreign Workers

Eric Tucker, AP, April 27, 2008

Breakfast will not be served this summer at Cape Cod’s Crown & Anchor. The Provincetown resort and entertainment complex usually hires 10 to 12 people from Jamaica and Eastern Europe each summer as cooks, housekeepers and maintenance workers. But new visa restrictions mean the guest workers it used last year aren’t expected back. With fewer workers, the resort’s management realized it wouldn’t have the manpower to serve three meals a day.

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Employers around the country who thrive on seasonal business are preparing to lose thousands of foreign workers they’ve hired in past summers to work in restaurants, hotels, landscaping and other industries. New visa controls are cutting the number of temporary foreign workers eligible to return to the country, so employers are scouring job fairs for replacements, lobbying Congress for help and bracing for staff shortages they say will make business tough.

Tourism and hospitality officials envision various problems if the jobs go unfilled: Restaurants may have fewer tables and longer wait-times. Hotel check-in times could be delayed as fewer housekeepers hustle to clean rooms. Resorts may offer fewer meals to guests.

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The shortage hit winter ski resorts from Colorado to Vermont and is expected to affect summer hot spots like Newport, R.I., and Cape Cod, where businesses count on foreign workers to meet the tourist demand. Many seasonal workers have held the same job for years, and employers say they value their returning workers’ experience and count on them to fill the critical, if unheralded, jobs that high school and college students typically aren’t interested in.

Foreign workers issued the visas, known as H-2B visas, are generally offered the same pay as an American worker would get for the same job, though the actual salary varies depending on the position and the location.

Rick Farrick, who owns five inns in Newport, is looking for replacements for about a half-dozen Jamaican housekeepers, who earned $9 or $10 an hour. He said he was willing to offer more money to find quality local replacements, but said that wouldn’t solve the problem of losing experienced workers who have worked for him for years.

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The shortage provides an opening for local workers, especially with a slumping economy and a national unemployment rate of 5.1 percent in March. But Keith Stokes, executive director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, said there’s usually not enough local interest to meet the need.

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Newport County is looking to replace around 500 H-2B employees this summer, Stokes said, while Cape Cod and the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard usually have between 5,000 and 7,000 H-2B employees.

Employers are looking into whether they can hire workers on visas other than the H-2B visas. Some are also bringing in foreign workers who are already in the country on an H-2B visa and are willing to extend their stays.

Steven Filippi, president of Ballard’s Inn, a resort on Block Island—a popular vacation spot off Rhode Island’s coast—said he had found 20 to 30 H-2B workers in Florida and Arizona to replace the Filipino workers he used to hire as bartenders, chefs and servers.

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