Nantucket businesses are bracing for more staffing challenges ahead of the summer season, but they got a bit of welcome news Thursday when the U.S. Department of Labor announced it will approve an additional 35,000 H-2B temporary worker visas in 2022.
Many Nantucket businesses rely on the temporary worker program, but the volatility of the lottery and the changing number of visas approved in recent years has created uncertainty for those employers. So Thursday’s announcement was “great news,” said Khaled Hashem, president of White Elephant Resorts on Nantucket.
“We are very fortunate to have many team members (on H2-B visas) with an average tenure of 13 years-plus and as many as 28 years,” Hashem said. “Having many of them back is a win-win for all
team members with solid experience and White Elephant Resorts culture are tough to replace.”
The 35,000 additional H-2B visas announced today will be allocated to U.S. employers seeking to add additional workers between April 1 and Sept. 30. The supplemental allocation includes 23,500 visas available to returning workers, who received an H-2B visa during one of the last three fiscal years. The remaining 11,500 visas, which are exempt from the returning worker requirement, are reserved for nationals of Haiti, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
At the Nantucket Inn, general manager Scott Thomas told the Current that the additional visas was indeed good news the island hospitality industry, but even so, it may not be enough. The timing of the release of the visas is unclear, he said, and that will be an important factor for businesses looking for clarity as the summer rapidly approaches.
"It is good news but we could still be looking at early June and that is only if there is no lottery," Thomas said.
Nantucket Hotel owner Mark Snider was cautiously optimistic about the news, but said the number of existing H2-B workers already in the United States had dropped significantly during the pandemic, and recruiting them from out-of-country was far more difficult. So the increase is welcomed, but it may or may not have an immediate impact for employers this summer.
“The lifting of 35,000 visas will help those who have already applied and are farther down the list,” Snider said. “We are still waiting for certain categories to be approved, and hopefully this will help with that. But it’s a jigsaw puzzle. It doesn’t hurt - it helps - but it doesn’t solve all the problems. It’s not an overnight panacea.”
The federal H-2B program allows business to hire non-citizens on a temporary basis to fill non-agricultural jobs in the U.S. It is limited to employment for one-time, seasonal, or intermittent positions. Employers have to certify that there are not enough “able, willing, qualified and available” workers to do the temporary work they require in order to become eligible for the program.
For some restaurant owners, however, the move by the federal government to add more H-2B visas at the end of March did not come soon enough. Straight Wharf Restaurant's executive chef Gabriel Frasca said it was indeed good news, but at this point, it was not helpful for his restaurant.
"It is too little, too late for us," Frasca said. "We were so far behind in the visa queue that we dropped our applications. The cape was already met and we hadn't even been approved yet because we don't need workers until early May, a relatively late start date. So the eight to ten H-2Bs that we 'normally' bring in wont' be here. I'll try to find them jobs with other people who have slots. It isn't helpful for us. It is helpful though. And what is really needed, of course, is some kind of reform. This is the jankiest setup imaginable, and really no way to run a country."
Matt Fee, owner of Something Natural on Cliff Road, shared those sentiments. The volatility of the H-2B program - not knowing whether he would be able to bring back workers he had employed for many years - led him to move away from relying on it for his seasonal workforce.
“We’ve moved away from it, unfortunately,” said Fee, who described having to part ways with a Jamaican family he had employed for several years but who recently couldn’t obtain their H2-B visas. “We had no choice. It’s too uncertain to run a business and not know whether your employees will show up or not. We’ve been trying to piece it together in other ways. It’s a puzzle.”
In his joint announcement of the visa increase with the Department of Labor, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas said the move was made in response to conditions in the labor market, and that the government would also be cracking down on abuses of the program.
“Informed by current demand in the labor market, today we are announcing the availability of an additional 35,000 H-2B visas that will help to support American businesses and expand legal pathways for workers seeking to come to the United States,” Mayorkas said. “Recognizing the importance of strong worker protections, we will apply greater scrutiny to those employers who have a record of violating obligations to their workers and the H-2B program.”
Both Fee and Snider added that the visa situation was one issue, but finding housing solutions for those employees once they arrive on Nantucket presents and even greater challenge.
“A lot of people think this is great,” Fee said. “I look at it and say ‘where are they going to live?’ If you have your own housing, you can hire them. That's great. But all the houses that used to be available for these workers are mostly gone.”