Seasonal Employees

We wrote about this a while ago, but the issue continues to be unresolved.

U.S. businesses that rely heavily on seasonal immigrant workers are grappling with a crippling labor shortage as summer nears. The reason: increased restrictions on H-2B visas, issued for nonagricultural seasonal workers.

The ski industry was the first to feel the impact of the shortage of seasonal workers. Now landscapers, hotels and restaurants are among those being hit hardest.

Anna Spalings, who along with her husband manages two Best Western Inns near Yellowstone National Park in Montana, usually hires more than a dozen housekeepers every summer under the H-2B program. This year, she wasn’t able to hire any workers under the program. “Summer is the only time we make money, and if we aren’t able to get all the rooms clean, we can’t check people into them,” she said.

The U.S. issues 66,000 H-2B visas a year, half for the fall and winter and half for the spring and summer. But in the past few years, Congress exempted from the cap foreign workers returning to the U.S. to do seasonal work. This year, efforts to extend the “returning-worker” exemption, which expired Sept. 30, got tangled up in a broader battle over immigration reform, and both sides say there’s little hope this year for congressional action. Meanwhile, the cap for summer visas was reached in January.

[From New Visa Curbs Hit Seasonal Employers]

One solution (similar to what I blabbed about earlier) is to radically restructure the economic landscape in America, cut compensation of CEOs and instead pay hourly wage workers a much higher salary. Odds are slim, shall we say?

The concerns are overstated, some say. “I find it beyond belief that there’s any place in the country where you can’t find landscape laborers if you pay them a decent wage,” said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington.

Mr. Eisenbrey argues that the shortage of immigrant workers will force businesses to hire American workers — a good thing, considering the weakening labor market and high teenage unemployment.

But many employers say they can’t find Americans to do the work. In fact, employers must attest to that to be eligible for the H-2B program.

Every year, Jennifer Fraser, 34 years old, and her husband spend the summer traveling from fair to fair in California, selling barbecue, teriyaki and corn dogs from their concession stands. She says American workers are rarely interested. “This is a hard job,” she said, with long days and constant travel.

She and her husband usually hire about nine H-2B workers every summer. But this year, most of their previous employees can’t get visas, so the couple is scaling back on the number of food stands they’re operating.

Employers who do manage to fill entry-level positions, with American teenagers, for instance, are often unhappy with having to treat children of privilege with respect and decency, preferring the old ways of treating employees like immigrants. Or something.

Still, most of the jobs involve low-skilled work in landscaping, forestry and housekeeping. Dede Gotthelf, who owns and manages the Southampton Inn and OSO restaurant on Long Island, says she usually uses the H-2B program to double her work force to 80 over the summer. This year, she has had to look elsewhere for workers to fill positions.

“We reached out right away to American college students,” she said. Her daughter, who will start college in the fall, and her daughter’s friends will help replace the workers from Ireland and Croatia that can’t get visas this year. She says the arrangement isn’t ideal: College students usually aren’t available for the entire April-October season, and their work ethic sometimes isn’t as good as that of foreign workers. Plus, some have “an arrogance and independence” that may not be good for business, she added.

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