With cap on H-2B visas for foreign workers, businesses struggle to find summer employees

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Ocean House held a job fair on Tuesday, but several hours in, only eight people had showed up. It posted jobs on LinkedIn, Indeed and Glassdoor. It advertised in the Providence Journal, Westerly Sun and The Day. The group director of human resources, Alice Brennan, even went to Montana to recruit.

"We would love to have U.S. staff, I mean, good God," Brennan said. The trouble is, she just can't find them.

Finding summer employees has been a perennial struggle for the five-star luxury hotel in Watch Hill ever since Congress in 2016 failed to renew an exemption that excluded returning workers from the cap on H-2B visas.

"If that was renewed, we'd be in great shape," Brennan said.

The H-2B program, run through U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services in the Department of Homeland Security, allows employers to hire people from other countries for temporary, non-agricultural work.

Ocean House jumps from 180 employees in the off-season to 400 in the summer, Brennan said. The hotel gets some college students, but most come through H-2B visas and J-1 visas, which allow foreign students to work for three months and then travel for one month.

Congress releases 33,000 visas for those who begin work in the fall and winter, such as employees at ski resorts, and another 33,000 for those who start in the spring or summer, like employees in seaside New England towns.

The problem is that the cap for those starting between April and September was reached on Feb. 19, leaving many employers without any visas. Ocean House was denied the 112 it had requested. It was able to hire 21 workers with in-country visas, meaning people who have been working here in the winter and can extend their stays.

Brennan said many people in Jamaica would love to come work at Ocean House this summer but there are no visas for them.

"They're leaving three children behind with their mom to take care of their children because they make so much more money here," she said. "People cry when they get their offers."

On May 31 of last year, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen increased the cap by 15,000 visas. But in 2017, it wasn't until July 19 that then-Secretary John Kelly increased the cap by the same amount.

DHS has not decided this year if or when it will expand the cap.

The struggle to find American workers

Keith Pabian, an immigration attorney who represents Ocean House and other businesses in the hospitality industry, was working the weekend before New Year's Day to be prepared to file applications first thing on Jan. 1.

Last year, the government did a random lottery for the 33,000 visas, but this year, it was on a first-come, first-served basis. Pabian said this made visas contingent upon internet speed and which officer handled the application, and it didn't help that the system crashed on Jan. 1. Pabian Law filed applications for multiple clients at the same time, and some got in under the cap while others didn't.

Pabian said he doesn't know why Congress let the cap exemption for returning workers expire but that it "took everyone by surprise."

Some members of the House and Senate argue that H-2B workers are taking U.S. jobs, which Pabian called a "ridiculous, ridiculous argument."

The first step of the H-2B visa application process requires an employer to show they have made some effort to recruit U.S. workers. Pabian said this year was "by far the most competitive recruiting market I've seen for H-2B," because of how low the unemployment rate is.

Don Klepper-Smith, economist with DataCore Partners, said that importing workers will help mitigate the problem Connecticut has with net migration out of the state.

"These visas are very important in terms of supplying labor in sectors of the economy that are needed to generate future economic growth," Klepper-Smith said. "Leisure, hospitality, tourism, all of that, when you think about that, if you can't find adequate labor to grow your business, then in fact you're constraining your towns' level of business activity."

For example, E.A. Quinn Landscape Contracting in Glastonbury has sent out contract cancellations. Operations manager Matthew Bagshaw said the company is cutting back on residential landscape projects and passing on bidding for commercial projects.

He said E.A. Quinn has been using H-2B workers for 17 or 18 years. Along with local seasonal employees, the 30 foreign workers they get in the summer help bring the company from about 15 full-time employees in the winter to 80 in peak season.

One issue is that peak season starts in April, whereas U.S. college and high school students aren't available until May or June. Beyond that, "The average kid coming out of high school or college right now does not strive to cut grass, prune trees, work out in the heat, work out in the cold," Bagshaw said.

The prevailing wage for various H-2B positions is determined by the federal government; for example, it's $12.55 an hour for housekeepers and $16.93 for landscapers. This means that anybody in the labor pool at a company hiring H-2B workers must be paid that, meaning high school students would make at least $16.93 an hour working at E.A. Quinn.

According to data Bagshaw provided, the government has increased this wage by 82 percent since 2013. He said a $3,000 ad in The Hartford Courant resulted in zero job applications this year.

"I sit here today, right now, with no guys, and we don't know when (Secretary Nielsen is) going to make that decision," Bagshaw said on Thursday. "We're sitting here on truck orders, capital expenditures, very important decisions we have to make."

He said E.A. Quinn was lucky enough last year to get its H-2B visas before the season, but that another Connecticut landscaper didn't.

Along with hospitality and landscaping, other industries that rely on H-2B visa workers include amusements, crabbing and construction.

Strange bedfellows when it comes to H-2B visas

While many associate immigration restrictions with President Donald Trump, Pabian is clear this is Congress' doing — or lack of doing — and thinks that "this is one of the few visas that I don't think this falls under (Trump's) immigration initiative."

At a campaign-style rally in Michigan last April, Trump made a similar economic assessment to that of Pabian and Klepper-Smith.

"The unemployment picture is so good, it's so strong, that we have to let people come in," Trump said. "They're going to be guest workers. They're going to come in, they're going to work on your farms, we're going to let the H-2Bs come in, we're going to have a lot of things happening, but then they have to go out. Then they have to go out. But we're going to let them in, because you need them."

After Kelly raised the cap in July 2017, Trump's properties asked the Department of Labor for an additional 76 guest workers, Vox reported.

U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services spokeswoman Jessica Collins said in an email statement to The Day on Friday, "USCIS and the administration remain focused on protecting the jobs, wages, and working conditions of U.S. workers as much as possible in fulfillment of the President's Buy American and Hire American Executive Order."

In 2017 and 2018, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., signed a bipartisan letter with three other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, expressing concern about the decision to approve additional H-2B visas. Both letters expressed concern over the vulnerability of H-2B workers to workplace abuses and human trafficking, and employers using H-2B workers to undercut the wages of U.S. workers.

Politico reported that on March 1, a bipartisan group of 11 senators wrote a letter asking Nielsen to increase the number of visas this year from 66,000 to 135,320.

In a phone interview on Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said the H-2B program is "one of those things that screams for a rewrite, if we could do comprehensive immigration reform." He added that applicants have to jump through a lot of hoops just to requalify people who aren't high-risk.

e.moser@theday.com

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