South Yarmouth, Mass. — While the rest of Massachusetts is riding the wave of a booming economy with low unemployment, Cape Cod is struggling. The state's low unemployment rate, currently at 3.7 percent, has created a labor shortage in this resort area every summer for five years. But things are looking up. A labor program allowing businesses to legally import foreign workers may cause a sea change here. Although it does not promise to solve Cape Cod's labor troubles, the alien-worker program may at least help ease the pressure. So, for many Cape businesses that participated in the plan this summer, the program was worth a try.
``It was born out of desperation,'' says Michael Frucci of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. ``It was a measure of last resort.''
The initiative was devised early this year when state and federal labor officials met with Cape Cod employers to work out a plan to ease the labor shortage. The plan is similar to a program that allows the United States to import aliens for agricultural work. But on the Cape businesses import workers for service-related jobs, says Kevin Morrissey of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. He hopes the Cape program will be used in other resort areas across the country.
Frank Catania, vice-president of a Cape Cod restaurant chain, brought in nine Jamaican workers last month. If things work smoothly, he hopes to import more next year. The Jamaicans will be able to stay in the US and work for him until the end of October. Other businesses involved in the plan have imported mostly English-speaking foreigners from Ireland, England, and Jamaica.
The program is controversial. Critics say it is taking jobs from Americans. But local employers say that early attempts at recruiting people - both in the Cape Cod area and around the country - were unsuccessful. Catania says he advertised for Cape Cod jobs in Houston, San Antonio, St. Louis, and Syracuse, N.Y., and could not come up with enough help by the beginning of this season.
``It's not that we're trying to bring in aliens instead of Americans,'' he says. ``That's not the case at all.'' He and other employers say the alien-worker program is merely a hiring alternative that makes employing aliens legal.
Housing costs on the Cape are high. With the low-paying jobs the Cape offers - in the $10,000 to $15,000 range - workers find it difficult to live here. Business owners say foreign workers often pool resources and live in one house. ``It's real hard to get people to uproot, move, and buy a house,'' says John Flynn of the US Labor Department. Mr. Flynn says Cape Cod jobs for about 600 foreigners were approved by his office. About 70 Cape employers applied for help.
Before the immigration law was reformed in 1986, Cape businesses relied on illegal aliens for summer help, according to Krista Hayes, of Cape Cod Community College. Federal penalties for hiring illegals under the new immigration law crackdown will encourage more businesses to participate in the alien-worker program next year, Ms. Hayes predicts.
``In the past they didn't have to worry about if the worker was legal or illegal,'' Hayes says. ``The government didn't care, and they weren't responsible. ... Nobody cared about it until November of 1986.''
Business owners are concerned about future shortages. They lament the annual exit of student workers in mid-August, as well as the shrinking student-age population. Also, the J-1 visa program, another labor alternative, brings in foreign students, but only for the summer. And workers in the J-1 program can participate only once.
Employers say that they need people who are willing to work for an entire six-month season, including the months just before and after the July-August summer peak. They are also looking for people willing to return the following year.
The alien-worker program, however, does have its drawbacks. Employers' applications must go through a bureaucratic maze before they are even eligible to hire someone. Business owners must apply to the state employment office, the US Department of Labor, and the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. Potential employers must show proof that they need workers, that they have advertised the positions at competitive wages, and they must guarantee that foreign workers will be paid the prevailing wage. The plan also requires that foreigners work only for the business that hired them.
Some employers are put off by all the paper work. ``People are apprehensive,'' Catania says. ``They think it's the IRS again.''