BOSTON (AP) – The owner of seafood restaurants on Cape Cod has cut lunch service and delayed opening some places because his summer influx of foreign workers has yet to arrive.
Over a thousand miles away, a Jamaican couple wonder if the rest of their extended family can join them for the seasonal migration to the popular seaside destination south of Boston that has been a crucial lifeline for them for decades.
As vaccinated Americans return to comfortable travel, popular summer destinations anticipate a busy season. But hotel, restaurant and retail store owners warn staff shortages exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic could force them to limit occupancy, cut hours and services, or close facilities altogether at the time. where they start to bounce back after a dark year.
The problem, they say, is twofold: The annual influx of seasonal foreign workers has stagnated in places because of the pandemic. Companies have also struggled to attract American workers, although many have stepped up efforts to hire locally amid high unemployment.
“This is the ‘Hunger Games’ for these employers, who are fighting to get these guest workers into the country while trying all they can to recruit from the country,” said Brian Crawford, executive vice president of the country. American Hotel and Lodging Association, Washington, DC-based industrial group. “It’s really frustrating. They are trying to gain a foothold after this disastrous pandemic, but they just can’t get a break.
Earlier this month, President Joe Biden allowed a controversial ban on temporary worker visas to expire, such as the J-1 program for students and the H-2B program for non-farm workers imposed by former President Donald Trump. .
But US embassies and consulates remain closed or are severely understaffed in many countries. The United States has also placed restrictions on travelers from countries such as the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil and South Africa due to the emergence of new variants of the virus or the increase cases of COVID-19.
Advocates of the J-1 program, which attracts around 300,000 international students a year, urged the State Department in a letter Thursday to exempt applicants from travel bans and provide other relief so they can begin their summer jobs. Ilir Zherka, head of the Alliance for International Trade, which sent the letter with more than 500 support groups and businesses, argued that the J-1 program not only benefits local economies, but also helps strengthen national security by promoting understanding and appreciation. of American culture.
Supporters of the H-2B program, meanwhile, have renewed their call for an overhaul of the program, which is capped at 66,000 visas per fiscal year. The Biden administration, citing the employers’ summer request, said Tuesday it would approve an additional 22,000 H-2B visas, but lawmakers in New England and other areas that rely on visas for tourism, the landscaping, forestry, fish processing and other seasonal occupations say it’s still insufficient.
“It’s infinitesimal. It’s nowhere near the need, ”said Congressman Bill Keating, a Democrat representing Cape Cod.
Cem Küçükgenç (Gem Koo-CHOOK-gench), a 22-year-old engineering student at Middle East Technical University in Turkey, is among thousands of overseas students around the world awaiting J visa approval -1.
He is expected to work at a waterfront restaurant in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin this summer, but the United States Embassy in Ankara recently announced that it would not be able to process work visas. temporary in time for the summer season.
Turkey has imposed a partial lockdown as the coronavirus rises there, but Küçükgenç still hopes the embassy could give in if cases of the virus decline.
“I graduated next year,” he said. “I don’t know when I’ll have another chance.”
In Jamaica, Freda Powell says she and her husband have obtained their H-2B visas and will arrive in Cape Cod, where they have worked in retail stores and restaurants for about 20 summers now, in early May.
But the 55-year-old fears her siblings and other loved ones may not be so lucky. The U.S. Embassy in Kingston has temporarily halted visa processing due to the increase in COVID-19 cases in her country, she said.
“In Jamaica you can work, but it’s melee,” Powell said. “With the money you earn in the United States, you can buy a car, fix the house, send your kids to school, and save money.”
The uncertainty surrounding international hiring has forced US companies to redouble their efforts to hire domestically, or to make difficult compromises until reinforcements can arrive.
In New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the Christmas-themed Santa’s Village amusement park promises students free housing and utilities.
In California’s Sonoma Valley, business leaders from famed wine country are exploring the idea of pooling employees, among other workforce initiatives.
Mark Bodenhamer, chief of the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce, said that a restaurant that serves breakfast and lunch could potentially share employees with one that does the majority of its business in the evening.
“These solutions are complicated and expensive,” he said. “But at this point, everything is on the bridge.”
In North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the tourist season is already in full swing, but staff shortages abound, according to Karen Brown, chief of the seaside region chamber of commerce.
Some restaurants have been forced to close once a week or stop curbside service, while in some hotels managers help maids return rooms, she said.
“Everyone participates where they can just to keep the wheels on the bus,” Brown said.
Mac Hay, who owns Cape Cod restaurants and seafood markets, is among business owners who doubt further efforts to hire American workers will pay off.
In any given year, he estimates that about a third of his summer workforce of 350 must ultimately come from seasonal visa workers from Mexico, Jamaica and elsewhere when jobs fail. are not provided locally.
Hay argues that foreign workers are the “basic kitchen staff” – line cooks, food preps and dishwashers – that allow him to hire Americans for the jobs they seek. , such as waiting tables, bartender and management.
“We simply cannot meet the demand without an increased workforce,” he said.
Business owners and experts say there are a myriad of reasons American citizens aren’t rushing to respond to the job boom, from COVID-19 concerns to child care issues or simply a decision to receive unemployment benefits, which have been increased and extended. summer season in most places.
But the need for international workers on Cape Cod – where soaring housing costs have been a major obstacle to creating a substantial local workforce – comes down to a simple math problem, Hay said.
Provincetown, a popular gay resort community at the far end of the cape, has only 2,200 year-round residents, but restaurants like Hay’s employ around 2,000 workers in peak season alone.
“We’re at a stalemate here, basically,” he said. “There is no one else to come.”