by Michael J. Shapiro | June 21, 2017
As summer gets underway, many resorts across the United States are facing a serious problem: They are unable to operate at full capacity due to a shortage of temporary workers. 
The problem stems from the fact that the cap on H-2B visas -- which are issued to foreign workers who come to the states for seasonal, low-skill jobs -- was reached early this year, in mid-March. In the past, workers returning to the same jobs they held previously did not count toward the 66,000 annual H-2B limit. Last fall, however, Congress removed that exemption, which reduces the number of H-2B visa holders by as much as 50 percent.
"It's a larger issue for resorts and hotels that are in more remote areas of the country," said Brian Crawford, vice president of government affairs for the American Hotel & Lodging Association, and co-chair of the H-2B Workforce Coalition. "I'm thinking of places like upstate Maine and Mackinaw Island, Mich., where there is not a large domestic workforce. But it's a major issue for the association."
Maine alone has nearly 2,000 unprocessed H-2B applications in the pipeline, and that doesn't include would-be applicants who were shut out when the cap was reached in March, according to Steve Hewins, president and CEO of the Maine Innkeepers Association. "That is a big hole to fill in the state with the oldest workforce in the nation, with an unemployment rate of just 3 percent and even lower in the tourism areas," he said. 
The Maine tourism industry is experiencing record demand, noted Hewin, but many restaurants have had to delay their openings and some historic inns are unable to operate all of their facilities.
Outcry from the lodging industry and others aided in the passage of the Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act, which was included in April's federal budget funding bill. According to the bill, the Department of Homeland Security has the power to reinstate the returning-worker exemption, but thus far hasn't taken action to do so.
DHS Secretary John Kelly has the discretion to raise the cap, according to DHS press secretary David Lapan, "after determining if the needs of American businesses cannot be satisfied with U.S. workers who are willing, qualified and able to perform temporary nonagricultural labor." The bill provided no deadline, he added.
"Secretary Kelly will undertake the necessary review and consultation and will make a decision when he's prepared to do so," said Lapan.
Meanwhile, for resorts that simply don't have a large enough pool of U.S. workers, hope is running out for this season. "There are concerns about shuttering operations altogether," said Crawford of the AH&LA, "or reducing domestic staff -- which has the exact opposite outcome of what we're seeking. We are very quickly running out of time to save the properties that are in their peak season right now."
Even if the cap were raised immediately, added Crawford, it would still take a number of weeks to get everything processed and bring the workers to the U.S. "Most likely, you're looking at only benefitting those entities that have really late seasons," he said. "They're the ones that could potentially find some relief if the administration takes action quickly."