So many rooms... so few workers

If there are fewer rides at the county fair this summer, or if the manager at the seaside hotel seems a bit frazzled, be kind. Thousands of employees whom businesses usually count on to get them through their peak tourist season aren't being allowed into the country this year.

Never before has the annual limit on temporary visa permits been reached so soon - early March. It was just halfway through the fiscal year, a time when many employers normally apply for summer workers. Without these core staff members - everyone from Jamaican cooks to South African carnival workers - some business owners warn they may have to scale back. And that, in turn, could pinch local economies.

"We are a catalyst when we come into town," says Ed Dame of Thebault-Blomsness, a traveling carnival company in Illinois. About 20 percent of a carnival's income usually goes to the school, church, or village that sponsors it, he says, "so if we can't make the money, it might cost a town a squad car or something." His application for visas (representing about 30 percent of his summer staff) didn't make it in before the cutoff.

This worker shortage represents a paradox in America's economy. At the same time that employers are begging for more foreign workers to handle the tourist season, more than half of the nation's teens appear unlikely to land summer jobs this year. And with worries about foreign competition for jobs already running high, it raises a key question: How difficult is it, really, to find Americans willing to do this work?

At resorts, you'll still find plenty of khaki-clad college students serving cold drinks by the pool. But as more of them opt for career-related internships, employers say few are willing to wash dishes or clean hotel rooms. Students they do hire often disappear before Labor Day. Staff from abroad are crucial, employers say, because they can stay through what has become an extended vacation season, lasting well into October. The summer snafu has prompted proposals on Capitol Hill to raise the cap on visas to 106,000 from the current 66,000.

Some experts have little sympathy for the employers' argument. There's no strong case for foreign labor when there are so many young people out of work, says Paul Harrington, an economist at Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies. The center reports that 42 percent of teenagers will be able to find jobs this summer. More broadly, about 14 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds are "idle" - unemployed and not in school - Mr. Harrington says.

"I understand that these [summer businesses] believe they have a very high- quality labor supply [from abroad]," he says, "but one of the ways you get a good work ethic is to get the experience ... and we're all better off long term if we get these kids engaged."

Andrea Larsen is one of those young people who hopes not to be idle much longer. At a job fair last month on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, she said she was happy with the current visa cap. "Almost everyone I know has been looking for a job," she said as she browsed the recruiters' tables. Discouragement set in a few months ago when she sensed that managers preferred foreign workers, but now she feels as if her prospects are good.

But two sisters at the fair illustrated how hard it can be to lure people to hot, steamy jobs in summer kitchens. Lindsay Doherty, a college student, and Ashley Doherty, a high schooler, said they work at restaurants during the year, so this summer they're more interested in bank jobs. "I like that I'd have to dress up and look a bit more professional," Lindsay explained.

Joan Rezendes, the job-fair coordinator at the Career Opportunities Center in Hyannis, said she put it together to respond to employers' panic when the visa cutoff was announced. Normally, the Cape has about 25,000 seasonal workers, including 4,000 to 5,000 from abroad. At least 1,000 of those foreigners have reportedly been shut out.

"You've got to be creative," Ms. Rezendes says. "If you can't get the foreign workers, then hire the college students and ... that buys you time to find other employees. We're encouraging them to consider retirees. There are a lot of seniors here who are perfectly capable of a hard day's work."

Rezendes was surprised that only six employers registered for the job fair. Perhaps the others had discovered a new labor brokerage firm called Workers on the Move. Maureen Oosten of Kennebunk, Maine, started matching up New England businesses with workers from the US Virgin Islands as soon as she caught wind of the visa crisis. She had connections on the islands and she knew that unemployment rates there were running 8 to 12 percent. Since they don't need a visa to come to the mainland, clusters of eager workers were able to sign on quickly.

Ms. Oosten greets new arrivals at the airport with welcome kits stuffed with local maps, fleece jackets, and international calling cards. She says she filled more than 400 jobs in the first few weeks, and with her phone ringing off the hook, she expects the number might climb to 2,000.

US Rep. Bill Delahunt (D) of Massachusetts picked up on the idea and has been working to set up more-formal ties between business and workforce-development leaders in his state and the Virgin Islands.

Laura Honey, general manager of the Fisherman's Wharf Inn in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, is planning to get by with double shifts. She's having to do without the seven Jamaican women who normally help keep 54 rooms clean. She recently found a few replacements, but they'll have to commute 45 minutes each way.

"We're hoping we can run to full capacity," she says, "but some places around here have 100 rooms, and they might not be able to open."

The fact that businesses such as Ms. Honey's are finding new recruits when forced to proves that American workers are available, some observers say. "The question is, are employers willing to organize work differently?" Harrington says. That could mean adding new incentives, such as subsidized summer housing or higher wages.

Employers insist they wouldn't be applying for seasonal-worker visas (known as H-2Bs) if they could find enough people locally. State labor departments have to certify that businesses took sufficient steps to advertise openings and recruit workers before they can get the visas.

"A lot of American workers won't work these [seasonal] jobs - they want something with higher income or prestige," says Roger Herman, author of "Impending Crisis: Too Many Jobs, Too Few People." He also attributes summer shortages to the fact that "there's a strong entrepreneurial bent among the millennial generation" - with young people starting their own summer painting or landscaping businesses rather than submitting to a boss at a full-time job.

Skeptics often accuse employers of exploiting foreign workers in low-paying jobs. Employers of H-2B workers counter that they are required to pay prevailing wages, typically above minimum wage. Many workers return year after year, so they receive promotions and raises, says Sally Bowles, director of human resources for the Catania Hospitality Group in Hyannis, Mass. The four hotels and restaurants she works with hire an extra 250 people each summer, including 50 to 60 from Jamaica, Nepal, and Bulgaria. She isn't panicking about the H2-B visa cap: "I'm one of the lucky ones who got hers," she says.

Beyond the hospitality industry, a range of businesses have been caught off guard by the visa cap. Salmon-roe processors in Alaska, for instance, typically bring in Japanese workers with specific skills so that the product meets standards for sale in Japan. Without that market, the jobs of 1,000 US workers could be on the line, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) in Washington.

Other employers affected by the cap include horse breeders in Kentucky, firefighting helicopter crews, and specialty summer camps such as one in Maryland that relies on Brazilian soccer coaches and players. AILA estimates that 10,000 H-2B visa applications (which can request multiple employees) have not gone through because of the cap.

Businesses can't apply for H-2Bs until 120 days before they need the workers, and this year, all the visas for the fiscal year (October through September) had been distributed before some summer employers could even send in the paperwork. Granting more visas would not displace Americans, says Joanna Carson, a business-immigration associate at AILA. Seasonal foreign workers, she says, help businesses "to create more jobs and bring in more income."

Before the H-2B visa category was created in the early 1990s, hotel managers often worked 18-hour shifts in the summer and never took a day off. Ms. Honey has had her Boothbay Harbor hotel for 39 years and says that before she started hiring visa workers about nine years ago, shehad "unbelievable turnover."

Financial manager Laura Bradford wonders not only what they'll do this summer, but what their regulars from Jamaica will do if there's no visa extension. "In Jamaica, they have to pay for children to go to school - that's one reason they come here, so their children will have better jobs when they grow up."

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