Visa cap hurts hospitality

Lack of staffers is hurting lodging and restaurant revenue, operations


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New Hampshire’s unemployment rate has been steadily dropping since July 2012, and it is now down to about 3 percent. That’s good news for New Hampshire employees, but it’s having a negative impact on employers in industries like hospitality that rely on seasonal help.

The decreasing pool of unemployed or underemployed New Hampshire residents means that these businesses cannot find the staff they need and must rely on workers from abroad. However, the recent restrictions put on the H-2B visa program, which allows employers to hire workers from other countries on a temporary basis, has put a strain on the pool of foreign resources as well.

The H-2B visa non-immigrant program permits employers to hire foreign workers to come temporarily to the U.S. and perform non-agricultural services or labor on a one-time, seasonal, peak load or intermittent basis.

According to Mike Somers, president and CEO of the NH Lodging and Restaurant Association, many businesses in the state are dependent upon foreign workers, especially in areas with a small year-round population, like the Lakes Region and North Country. They’ve used the H-2B program to help keep their businesses afloat in the peak seasons, but since the federal government put a cap on how many people can apply for H-2B visas, the workers have been harder to find.

There is a statutory numerical cap on the total number of foreign nationals who may be issued an H-2B visa or otherwise granted H-2B status during a fiscal year. Currently, Congress has set the cap at 66,000 nationwide per fiscal year, with 33,000 for workers who begin employment in the first half of the fiscal year (Oct. 1-March 31) and 33,000 for workers who begin employment in the second half of the fiscal year (April 1-Sept. 30).

Any unused numbers from the first half of the fiscal year are available for employers seeking to hire H-2B workers during the second half of the fiscal year. However, unused H-2B numbers from one fiscal year do not carry over into the next. 

Lack of staffing is hurting revenue and operations. One owner of a large New Hampshire restaurant said he had to close 30 percent of his dining room due to lack of kitchen staff. Another owner of an oceanfront hotel said he had his best and worst year ever, with record revenue while being consistently understaffed. He said that minimum wage was not an issue; he was offering $15-$20 an hour for housekeepers. 

A third owner of a property even stated that be was pulling front-of-the-house managers to work on the kitchen line.

Not only is it hard for the employers to find the help, but it’s even harder to adhere to the new regulations regarding the employment of H-2B holders, which were outlined in April in a 104-page ruling from the departments of Labor and Homeland Security.

Sim Willey, owner and operator of Hart’s Turkey Farm in Meredith, said he uses both an agent and an attorney to help him with the process. Last year, he got all 15 full-time H-2B visa holders he requested.

According to Willey, H-2B employees are crucial to business when tourists flood the Lakes Region in the summer.

“As the economy gets better, it’s extremely important (to have H-2B workers available),” he said. 

According to George Copadis, commissioner of the NH Department of Employment Security, with the unemployment rate at just 3.3 percent, there are about 24,000 people in New Hampshire collecting unemployment.

Additionally, two years ago at a major job fair, there were 1100 jobs available and 900 people showed up to interview. At the same job fair this year, the same number of jobs were available and only 300 people attended. This shows a clear need for additional workforce in the state, giving our economy the fuel to sustain and flourish.

To ensure the future of New Hampshire industries that rely on seasonal work, with unemployment rates at their lowest in recent history, the cap must be raised on these H-2B visas.

Hopefully, our senators and congressmen are aware of this need, and more importantly, citizens and businesses are using their individual and collective voice to communicate this issue at a state level. 

Earle Wason is president of Portsmouth-based Wason Associates Hospitality Real Estate Brokerage Group. 

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