by Michael J. Shapiro | July 01, 2017
As summer got underway, many resorts across the United States faced a serious problem: They were 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, reducing 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."

Maine alone had nearly 2,000 unprocessed H-2B applications in the pipeline as the season began, and that didn'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 was experiencing record demand, noted Hewins, but many restaurants had to delay their openings and some historic inns were 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 at press time had not done 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 was 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 quickly running out of time to save properties that are in their peak season right now."