BAR HARBOR, Maine -- Faced with a worker shortage at his restaurant earlier this summer, Kevin DesVeaux spent about as much time in front of a sink as he did behind his desk.
DesVeaux and his wife, also his business partner, are no strangers to pitching in to run their restaurant, but the shortage of seasonal workers this summer left her waitressing alongside a shoestring staff while DesVeaux was putting in more than 40 hours a week washing dishes. One week his small staff worked 190 hours of overtime, even as they decided to close one day a week.
Maine has seen its tourism industry rebound this year, even as workforce issues leave the state with few workers to keep up with demand.
That shortage has left Maine businesses clamoring for foreign workers -- often a touchy subject in other parts of the country.
“That's not the problem here,” DesVeaux said of concerns elsewhere about foreign workers. “The problem here is there are no warm bodies.”
The state has long relied on H-2B visas, which allow foreign workers to come to the U.S. for six months at a time. Under the program, businesses are required to pay for their transportation to and from the country.
“We’re never in a position of choosing foreign workers over domestic workers because there are no domestic workers to choose from,” said Eben Salvatore, whose Bar Harbor hotels bring in about 300 to 400 temporary workers from overseas each year to help clean and staff a number of properties that require as many as 800 workers.
“Maine is obviously Vacationland, and Maine is beautiful and a No. 1 destination for six months out of the year -- but not 12. So you have an enormous amount of interest in out-of-state travelers being here in the millions and serving them and accommodating them, but those staff don't just sit for six months and wait for them on the scale that we need.”
The demand for foreign workers is particularly high as the state sees record tourism following a year where many left the hospitality industry as COVID-19 forced shops to shutter.
To complicate matters further, many foreign workers weren't able to enter the country due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
“A massive reduction in the ability to hire through the H-2B visa program federally and the impact from COVID and the unemployment benefits paid out to people created the perfect storm for us along with highly seasonal nature of our industry,” said Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association, whose members process and sell the summer lobster catch.
Maine used to be more reliant on local high school and college students to round out its summer workforce.
But the tourist season is starting earlier and ending later, reducing the labor force as more schools start classes before the Labor Day weekend that used to mark the end of summer tourism.
© Rebecca Beitsch
“We need people to be working at those businesses rather than be at mercy of the high school or college schedule,” said Alf Anderson, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, calling the H-2B program “really beneficial to a seasonal destination like ourselves.”
Over the years, many businesses turned to H-2Bs, often hiring the same workers or even the same families to come work in Maine. Many hail from Jamaica, a country with its own robust hospitality industry.
Contrary to a common misconception that foreign workers come cheap, they come at no small expense to business owners, who must pay the prevailing U.S. wage and who often spend thousands on legal fees when applying for the workers. Maine employers also tend to provide housing for their workers, especially in a state where tourists are snatching up short-term summer rentals.
The stiff competition for foreign workers pushed the Department of Homeland Security years ago to switch to a lottery system to determine which businesses get priority for hiring the 33,000 summer workers, a number that’s capped by DHS.
Some businesses try to work within those confines by attempting to hire workers who came into the country during the winter, giving them the option to extend into the summer season if they can find an employer.
“I just went to work, trying to search the country for anybody who was in-country and wanting to extend,” said Bo Jennings, who manages the Side Street Cafe in Bar Harbor.
“I found a total of four.”
This year, about 10 percent of the restaurant’s staff are short-term foreign workers. In previous summers, that number has been closer to 25 percent, with foreign workers using either H-2Bs or another visa program, J-1, which lets college students from various countries come work in the U.S. over their summer break.
Once the U.S. reaches its summer cap, DHS can release additional visas, but only if Congress gives the go-ahead.
This year DHS released another 22,000 visas at the end of May, but the delay often means workers arrive in Maine well into the summer season.
“It would just be really great if this were not a political football, if it wasn't done on an annual basis, if we weren't trying to fix it through an amendment process,” said Rep. Chellie PingreeRochelle (Chellie) PingreeMaine businesses clamor for foreign workers to meet demand Labor shortages slam into rebounding tourism in Maine Congress can make progress on fighting emissions with Zero Food Waste Act MORE (D-Maine).
Pingree this year introduced an amendment to the annual DHS appropriations bill that would allow the agency to increase the cap. In the long run, though, she wants to see it permanently lifted.
“It’s an unnecessary mess for many reasons. You're working on the political side, you're fighting about the amendments in an appropriations markup, but then you go home and talk to a restaurant owner in Maine, and they're just baffled like ‘Why can't you just fix this? What what is the problem here?’” she said.
“They don't want to know the fact that it's stuck in three different committees. They're just like, ‘This is a no brainer. We want to grow our economy. We don't have any workers; these are willing workers. These are families we've dealt with forever.’ It's very frustrating because I agree with them. It just doesn't make any sense, and it shouldn't be a problem.”
The delay can leave both businesses and visa recipients in the lurch.
Nadra Hayden has been coming to Bar Harbor from her home in Ochorios, Jamaica -- a tourist destination in its own right -- for eight years to work in Salvatore’s hotels.
© Rebecca Beitsch
Spending half the year working in the U.S. allows her to stay at home with her children the other half -- a financial calculus that gets disrupted when she doesn’t get called up until the second wave of visas.
“You’ve got to plan ahead,” she said, adding that she has to save extra money each year just in case the hotel isn’t able to call her up until later in the season.
Business owners also said they want more certainty with the visa process; specifically, they want DHS to authorize more visas upfront or exempt from the cap those who have already worked in the U.S. and undergone screening.
When the federal government has exempted prior workers, the number of H-2B workers has soared, reaching an all time high of nearly 130,000 in 2007.
The DesVeaux’s were able to get workers later in the summer after DHS issued more visas, bringing on an additional nine employees, all of whom previously worked at the restaurant. Along with five H-2B workers who were able to extend, the foreign workers made up about a third of their staff.
“What's frustrating is that they could include the returning worker exemption, which they used to where these workers that have been coming for years and years would be exempt from this cap. They’ve been coming for yours so they’re, trusted they’re screened they’re great staff,” said Jessica DesVeaux, who runs the restaurant with her husband Kevin.
“This could help everybody greatly because they haven't increased the cap in so many years, and it's just not keeping up with the times. It's quite ridiculous at this point.”