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Latest shortage is summer labor

Seasonal foreign workers, U.S. hires both hard to come by by The Associated Press | April 27, 2021 at 2:03 a.m.
Worker Jennifer Porter, of Hyannis, Mass., cleans windows, Tuesday, April 6, 2021, at Red Jacket Resorts, in Yarmouth, Mass. Hotels, restaurants and other businesses in tourist destinations are warning that hiring challenges during the coronavirus pandemic could force them to pare back operating hours or curtail services just as they’re eyeing a bounce-back summer. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

BOSTON -- The owner of seafood restaurants on Cape Cod has eliminated lunch service and delayed the opening of some locations because his summertime influx of foreign workers hasn't arrived yet.

More than a thousand miles away, a Jamaican couple is fretting about whether the rest of their extended family can join them for the seasonal migration to the popular beach destination south of Boston that's been a crucial lifeline for them for decades.

As vaccinated Americans start to get comfortable traveling again, popular summer destinations are anticipating a busy season. But hotel, restaurant and retail store owners warn that staffing shortages exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic could force them to limit occupancy, curtail hours and services or shut down facilities entirely just as they're starting to bounce back from a grim year.

The problem, they say, is twofold: The annual influx of seasonal foreign workers has stalled in places because of the pandemic. Businesses have also struggled to attract U.S. workers, even as many have redoubled their efforts to hire locally amid high unemployment.

"It's the 'Hunger Games' for these employers, fighting for getting these guest workers into the country while also trying everything they can to recruit domestically," said Brian Crawford, an executive vice president for the American Hotel and Lodging Association, a Washington, D.C.-based industry group.

Earlier this month, President Joe Biden let expire a controversial ban on temporary worker visas such as the J-1 program for students and the H-2B program for nonagricultural laborers imposed by former President Donald Trump.

But American embassies and consulates remain closed or severely short-staffed in many countries. The U.S. has also imposed restrictions on travelers from countries including the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil and South Africa because of the emergence of new virus variants or rising covid-19 cases.

Advocates for the J-1 program, which brings in about 300,000 foreign students annually, urged the State Department in a letter Thursday to exempt the applicants from the travel bans and provide other relief so they can start their summer jobs. Ilir Zherka, head of the Alliance for International Exchange, which sent the letter along with more than 500 supporting groups and companies, argued the J-1 program doesn't just benefit local economies, but also helps strengthen national security by promoting understanding and appreciation of U.S. culture.

Supporters of the H-2B program, meanwhile, have renewed their call to overhaul the program, which is capped at 66,000 visas per fiscal year. The Biden administration, citing the summer demand from employers, said last week it will approve an additional 22,000 H-2B visas, but lawmakers from New England and other regions that rely on the visas for tourism, landscaping, forestry, fish processing and other seasonal trades say that's still inadequate.

VISA PROCESSING HALT

Cem Kucukgenc, a 22-year-old engineering student at Middle East Technical University in Turkey, is among thousands of foreign students worldwide awaiting approval for a J-1 visa.

He's scheduled to work at a waterfront restaurant in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., this summer, but the U.S. Embassy in Ankara recently announced that it won't be able to process temporary work visas in time for the summer season.

"I graduate next year," he said. "I'm not sure when I'll have another chance."

In Jamaica, Freda Powell says she and her husband have secured their H-2B visas and will arrive on Cape Cod, where they've worked in retail stores and restaurants for roughly 20 summers now, in early May.

But the 55-year-old worries her siblings and other relatives might not be so lucky. The U.S. Embassy in Kingston has temporarily halted visa processing because of rising covid-19 cases in her country, she says.

"In Jamaica, you can work, but it's hand-to-mouth," Powell said. "With the money you make in the U.S., you can buy a car, fix the house, send your kids to school and build savings."

DOMESTIC HIRING

The uncertainty around international hires has forced American businesses to redouble their efforts to hire domestically, or make tough compromises until reinforcements can arrive.

In California's Sonoma Valley, business leaders in the winemaking region are exploring the idea of pooling employees, among other workforce initiatives.

Mark Bodenhamer, head of the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce, said a restaurant that serves breakfast and lunch could possibly share employees with one that does the majority of its business during evening hours.

"Those solutions are complicated and costly," he said. "But at this point, it's all hands on deck."

In North Carolina's Outer Banks, the tourist season is already in full swing, but staff shortages abound, said Karen Brown, head of the beach region's chamber of commerce.

Some restaurants have been forced to shut down once a week or halt curbside service, while in some hotels, managers are helping maids turn over rooms, she said.

"Everyone is pitching in where they can just to keep the wheels on the bus," Brown said.

Workers Miriam Mattos, left, and Marilene Souto, hands only at right, both of Hyannis, Mass., make a bed, Tuesday, April 6, 2021, at Red Jacket Resorts, in Yarmouth, Mass. Hotels, restaurants and other businesses in tourist destinations are warning that hiring challenges during the coronavirus pandemic could force them to pare back operating hours or curtail services just as they’re eyeing a bounce-back summer.  (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Workers Miriam Mattos, left, and Marilene Souto, hands only at right, both of Hyannis, Mass., make a bed, Tuesday, April 6, 2021, at Red Jacket Resorts, in Yarmouth, Mass. Hotels, restaurants and other businesses in tourist destinations are warning that hiring challenges during the coronavirus pandemic could force them to pare back operating hours or curtail services just as they’re eyeing a bounce-back summer. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Server Christopher Lee-Caron, of Provincetown, Mass., center left, prepares to carry plates of food to customers at Tin Pan Alley restaurant, Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Provincetown. Hotels, restaurants and other businesses in tourist destinations are warning that hiring challenges during the coronavirus pandemic could force them to pare back operating hours or curtail services just as they’re eyeing a bounce-back summer. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Server Christopher Lee-Caron, of Provincetown, Mass., center left, prepares to carry plates of food to customers at Tin Pan Alley restaurant, Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Provincetown. Hotels, restaurants and other businesses in tourist destinations are warning that hiring challenges during the coronavirus pandemic could force them to pare back operating hours or curtail services just as they’re eyeing a bounce-back summer. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Server Christopher Lee-Caron, of Provincetown, Mass., top left, assists customers at Tin Pan Alley restaurant, Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Provincetown. Hotels, restaurants and other businesses in tourist destinations are warning that hiring challenges during the coronavirus pandemic could force them to pare back operating hours or curtail services just as they’re eyeing a bounce-back summer. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Server Christopher Lee-Caron, of Provincetown, Mass., top left, assists customers at Tin Pan Alley restaurant, Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Provincetown. Hotels, restaurants and other businesses in tourist destinations are warning that hiring challenges during the coronavirus pandemic could force them to pare back operating hours or curtail services just as they’re eyeing a bounce-back summer. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Bartender Denis Angelov, of Provincetown, Mass., left, serves sparking wine to Julie Skaller, left, and her husband David Skaller, right, both of Brewster, N.Y., at Tin Pan Alley restaurant, Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Provincetown. Hotels, restaurants and other businesses in tourist destinations are warning that hiring challenges during the coronavirus pandemic could force them to pare back operating hours or curtail services just as they’re eyeing a bounce-back summer. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Bartender Denis Angelov, of Provincetown, Mass., left, serves sparking wine to Julie Skaller, left, and her husband David Skaller, right, both of Brewster, N.Y., at Tin Pan Alley restaurant, Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Provincetown. Hotels, restaurants and other businesses in tourist destinations are warning that hiring challenges during the coronavirus pandemic could force them to pare back operating hours or curtail services just as they’re eyeing a bounce-back summer. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Worker Cori Malone, of Provincetown, Mass., arranges seaweed near fish at Mac's Seafood Market, Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Provincetown. Hotels, restaurants and other businesses in tourist destinations are warning that hiring challenges during the coronavirus pandemic could force them to pare back operating hours or curtail services just as they’re eyeing a bounce-back summer.  (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Worker Cori Malone, of Provincetown, Mass., arranges seaweed near fish at Mac's Seafood Market, Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Provincetown. Hotels, restaurants and other businesses in tourist destinations are warning that hiring challenges during the coronavirus pandemic could force them to pare back operating hours or curtail services just as they’re eyeing a bounce-back summer. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
FILE - In this April 22, 2021, file photo, people wait in line to apply for seasonal jobs at Virgin Hotels Las Vegas in Las Vegas. The hotel-casino, which opened in March, held the casting call to hire for seasonal positions at the resort pool and dayclub. Hotels, restaurants and other businesses in tourist destinations are warning that hiring challenges during the coronavirus pandemic could force them to pare back operating hours or curtail services just as they’re eyeing a bounce-back summer. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)
FILE - In this April 22, 2021, file photo, people wait in line to apply for seasonal jobs at Virgin Hotels Las Vegas in Las Vegas. The hotel-casino, which opened in March, held the casting call to hire for seasonal positions at the resort pool and dayclub. Hotels, restaurants and other businesses in tourist destinations are warning that hiring challenges during the coronavirus pandemic could force them to pare back operating hours or curtail services just as they’re eyeing a bounce-back summer. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)
Bartender Denis Angelov, of Provincetown, Mass., left, carries plates of food from the kitchen, behind, at Tin Pan Alley restaurant, Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Provincetown. Hotels, restaurants and other businesses in tourist destinations are warning that hiring challenges during the coronavirus pandemic could force them to pare back operating hours or curtail services just as they’re eyeing a bounce-back summer. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Bartender Denis Angelov, of Provincetown, Mass., left, carries plates of food from the kitchen, behind, at Tin Pan Alley restaurant, Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Provincetown. Hotels, restaurants and other businesses in tourist destinations are warning that hiring challenges during the coronavirus pandemic could force them to pare back operating hours or curtail services just as they’re eyeing a bounce-back summer. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Bartender Denis Angelov, of Provincetown, Mass., pours drinks at Tin Pan Alley restaurant, Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Provincetown. Hotels, restaurants and other businesses in tourist destinations are warning that hiring challenges during the coronavirus pandemic could force them to pare back operating hours or curtail services just as they’re eyeing a bounce-back summer. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Bartender Denis Angelov, of Provincetown, Mass., pours drinks at Tin Pan Alley restaurant, Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Provincetown. Hotels, restaurants and other businesses in tourist destinations are warning that hiring challenges during the coronavirus pandemic could force them to pare back operating hours or curtail services just as they’re eyeing a bounce-back summer. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
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