The Trump administration acted Monday to allow 15,000 more visas this year for temporary seasonal workers, but some business owners say the effort comes too late.
Under authority from Congress, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly extended the cap on H2B visas, which cover non-agricultural guest workers in seasonal industries like landscaping, fishing and resorts.
Local economies in New England and the Great Lakes with small round-year populations rely on the program to cope with a major surge in business over the summer.
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Jane Nichols Bishop, who runs an agency in Mashpee, Massachusetts, that works to secure visas for local businesses, said earlier this month that the H2B program serves to fill temporary, often minimum-wage jobs that Americans don't apply for.
“It’s not that Americans don’t want work, it’s that Americans don’t want these jobs because they’re back-breaking hard work,” Bishop said. “You’re standing on your feet in the heat of the kitchen peeling onions and washing dishes until 2 in the morning.”
A federal law caps the number of available H2B visas at 66,000 a year. Until last year, guest workers who had already participated were not counted toward the cap.
But after Congress effectively reduced the number of guest workers allowed in for the summer, it gave DHS the power to authorize more visas in May.
Some employers have complained that relief on the issue was coming too late into the season, given the two months it took DHS to take action on increasing the visa cap.
“There are still so many hotels and restaurants that have been impacted by this in a negative way,” Steve Hewins, president of the Maine Innkeepers Association, said after Monday's decision. “It’s still going to be weeks before any of the workers who are available can make it here.”
The Colony, an oceanside hotel in Kennebunkport, Maine yards away from a Bush family property, may not even hire some H2B visa workers this year because they would only be arriving by summer's end, general manager John Martin said.
DHS spokesman David Lapan told NBC News that Congress gave his department the authority to allow additional visas at least six months later than normal.
Last year, the federal government allowed 13,382 additional visas beyond the cap in order to meet seasonal demand.
Sarah Mace Diment, the owner of a bed and breakfast in Ogunquit, Maine, called the delay on the issue "ridiculous" and said that the additional visas are only a "drop in the bucket" that may not fulfill business needs.
“I have no idea if I’m even going to get a visa once they’re processed,” Diment said. “It’s going to be anywhere from a three to six-week process to see if I get my visas, and by then we’re talking mid-August.”
Because tourist season in Maine runs until September or October, the six workers she’s currently missing will only be able to help her make up a fraction of the peak season, Diment said.
Sam Bradford, the CFO of Mac’s Seafood on Cape Cod, said that the DHS announcement is only the first step in a complex process.
Starting Monday, business owners can mail in applications, which must then be reviewed and approved by DHS, Bradford said. Afterwards, the business must hire a candidate, submit paperwork, schedule an interview at the local embassy, and secure a plane ticket for the worker to come to the US.
While President Trump has expressed his opposition to guest worker programs, he has made an exception for the H2B visa — one his Mar-a-Lago resort regularly applies for in order to supplement its staff.
"This does help with American businesses continuing to prosper," a senior DHS official told NBC News.
Because businesses applying for the program must state that they will be irreparably harmed without a workforce boost, the additional visas are consistent with an "America First" policy, the official said.
But Daniel Costa, who directs immigration research at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, said that the H2B program lacks enough enforcement to make sure American workers can benefit.
As it stands, Costa said, employers can advertise jobs to Americans with unusually low wages and create a “fake labor shortage” that they’re then allowed to fill with vulnerable, easily exploited foreign workers.
“Nationally, there isn’t actual evidence of labor shortages people talk about,” he said. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t some shortages in some places, but there need to be rules in place to ensure that a fair wage is being offered to American workers first.”
And while more visas may create a workforce boost, the damage — and its effect on other industries — may already be done.
Mike Hutt, director of the Virginia Seafood Council, said that crab and oyster companies on the Virginia coast provide much of the business for local boat and net manufacturers.
“If there aren’t enough workers to come in here legally, we’re going to have a weak economy, and we’re going to lose segments of the economy we have that already depend on these workers,” Hutt said.