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Lawmakers, Businesses Say Worker Visa Restrictions Will Harm Maine Tourism Industry

Beach enthusiasts crowd the shores of Old Orchard Beach on a hot summer day in July 2011.
Pat Wellenbach
Associated Press
Beach enthusiasts crowd the shores of Old Orchard Beach on a hot summer day in July 2011.

Lawmakers, Businesses Say Worker Visa Restrictions Will Harm Maine Tourism Industry

Summer resorts around the nation are bracing for a tough season — not because the tourists won’t come, but because the workers might not. The reinstatement of a cap on visas for temporary workers has some in the hospitality industry predicting catastrophe.

Oqunquit is pretty quiet right now. But Sarah Diment, owner of the Beachmere Inn, says come summer a surge of tourists transforms it into a bustling New England ocean resort colony. And they are accompanied by an influx of foreign workers.

“Most of the women that have worked for us have come from Jamaica. They come, they work, they buy — it’s an insane amount of goods that they ship home. And then they go home every year,” she says.

Prospects are dimming for their return: A cap will soon kick in on the number of short-term work visas provided under the H-2B program, which brings in low-skilled labor for nonagricultural jobs that American employers say they can’t fill closer to home — mostly in landscaping, seafood processing, maid and other hospitality services.

The program provides roughly 66,000 of the visas, and some years, including last, Congress has allowed more. But not this year — and there are only about 11,000 left.

Southern states such as Florida have already secured workers, but many resorts with later seasons won’t make it into the queue. Diment says she’s likely to close up whole sections of the Beachmere, cancel reservations booked long ago and possibly lay off local staff.

“If I have to take out 20 rooms out of inventory, then do I really need five people in our maintenance department? Do I really need eight people at the front desk? Not only would it impact my guests, but it would potentially impact what we do here as a hotel to stay open with everyone else,” she says.

Those concerns have caught the attention of a bipartisan coalition of U.S. senators, including Maine Republican Susan Collins, that wants an audit of the H-2B program to ensure all available visas are issued.

“I think it’s important to realize, even in this environment, where immigration issues have become so controversial, that these are essentially guest workers,” she says.

Collins also says more visas should be allotted for returning workers.

Gov. Paul LePage, who generally supports more restrictive immigration policies, sees the need too. He told a recent town hall audience in Yarmouth that he is lobbying Congress to provide more of the temporary worker visas.

“I’m going to Washington tomorrow to try to get them to open up the work visas so we can get workers to work in restaurants. We’re not going to be able to find them this year. People aren’t going to be working in restaurants,” he says.

But efforts to expand the program are likely to be caught in the larger immigration debate and divide Republicans. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for instance, condemned the program last year, when he was Alabama’s senator.

“Our focus needs to be on getting Americans back to work, not on seeing how many foreign workers we can bring to the United States,” he says.

Progressive groups also oppose the program. They point to evidence of abuses: unenforced payscale requirements, which can hurt wages for American job-seekers. And because the visas commit workers to a single employer, opponents say there’s a power imbalance that puts workers at risk of deportation if they try to protest any mistreatment.

Congressional supporters of the visa program still may try to attach expansions to a coming budget measure. One major wildcard: President Donald Trump.

“Buy American and hire American” has been his mantra, but he’s also hired dozens of H-2B workers for his properties, including what he’s dubbed the “Winter White House,” Mar-a-Lago.

Copyright 2021 Maine Public. To see more, visit Maine Public.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.
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