Maine Tourist Destinations Anxious Over Federal Visa Holdup

Mar 17, 2015

OGUNQUIT, Maine — It might seem hard to imagine, but Maine's tourist season is just around the corner — and some hotels, motels and inns are confronting a seasonal worker snag.

The so-called federal H2B visa program that allows businesses to hire foreign workers is on hold following a court ruling in Florida. Members of the hospitality industry say if they can't hire foreign seasonal workers, they won't be able to meet customer demand, and Maine's tourism economy will suffer.

Just a few steps away from the Meadowmere Resort's front desk in Oqunquit is a building that houses its seasonal pub.

Tables and chairs are empty now, and director of marketing Allyson Cavaretta says they might stay that way if the Meadowmere can't bring in the 18 or so seasonal workers from Jamaica it was counting on to fill cooking and housekeeping positions. She says without them, some rooms may also have to remain vacant. Or, she might find her job duties expand.

"I'm not great at bed making, but it might be something I'm going to get a lot better at this year," she says.

Cavaretta says there just aren't enough local workers interested or available to fill the jobs needed over the 6-month season. That's why the Meadowmere supplements its local workforce with the H2B seasonal visa program. Pay rates are set by the U.S. Department of Labor and she says all of Meadowmere's positions offer well above the minimum wage — some as much as 70 percent above.

Cavaretta says she was stunned when she found out earlier this month that the Labor Department stopped processing H2B visas, leaving the Meadowmere and its foreign workforce in limbo.

"It's kind of unfathomable," she says. "We have been around since 1983. This will be our 32nd season. We've never faced such a challenge from red tape. This program was developed to be a legal way to supplement your workforce."

The hold up with the H2B program is due to a federal court case in Florida. The case was brought by a restaurant worker named Gabriel Perez who claimed the program put him at a financial disadvantage because workers in similar jobs earned more money in positions that were never advertised publicly.

The court ruling found that the Labor Department doesn't have the authority to enforce H2B regulations, so the agency stopped processing applications. The president of the Maine Innkeepers and Maine Restaurant Associations Greg Dugal says the decision comes at a bad time for the Maine hospitality industry.

"There were visas that were issued prior to this," he says. "And those people are coming into the country. But most of our people don't come in till early April or mid May, so at this point, all of that is at a standstill."

Last week, U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins sent a letter to the Labor Department urging it to resume processing H2B applications immediately. In response, the Department filed a motion to postpone the court order. Meanwhile, Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and a number of her House colleagues are signing a letter to the Department of Homeland Security asking for a permanent solution.

Joy Hanscomb of the Cromwell Harbor Motel in Bar Harbor is also anxious for a solution.

"I'm really not quite sure what we're going to do," she says.

This was the first year the Cromwell Harbor Motel tried to use the H2B visa program. Hanscomb says they were depending on it to fill five housekeeping positions. She says they'd gladly hire local help, but, "They're not applying. They're not calling. They're not inquiring, So that's where this program has really stepped up to the plate for all of these employers in our area. They've really bridged the gap."

Hanscomb says Bar Harbor generates a lot of revenue for the state of Maine. But to meet the tourist demand and build successful businesses, she says the region needs the extra workforce.