Accessibility links

US Tourism Industry Worries Foreign Worker Visa Cap Might Keep Needed Jobs Unfilled - 2004-04-14


There are many victims in the fight against terrorism - and one of them could be the tourism industry. Resort operators and restaurateurs are concerned this year's summer season could be a bust. Not because visitors are afraid to travel; it's that, in the interest of homeland security, the federal government has enforced a limit on the number of visas issued to temporary workers from other countries. In New Hampshire, officials say the cap on visas will keep tourist-oriented businesses from filling some 600 to 700 jobs, even at a time when many Americans are looking for work.

Nearly half of New Hampshire's tourists visit during the three summer months. And over the past few years the state's tourism industry has increasingly relied on a foreign workforce to serve those guests. Last year, businesses brought in about 600 summer workers to cook, clean, garden and wait tables.

But this March, the federal government announced the country had reached its 66,000-worker cap under what is called the H2-B visa. In the past, the limit had been overlooked, but this year federal officials clamped down.

Fearful summer businesses won't be able to field a full compliment of employees, New Hampshire's senators have signed onto a bi-partisan measure to temporarily raise the cap. Judd Gregg says he's not the only lawmaker hearing from constituents.

"This is not a regional problem, this is a national problem," he said. "There are a lot of places that need to get help to come in to assist them for a summer season and they can't do it now."

If the legislation passes, it would increase the cap enough to meet New Hampshire's needs this year.

"Just to show you more dining, every night this whole building is filled, and during the daytime we use at least two-thirds and we seat just under 500 people," says Russell Hart, the owner of Hart's Turkey Farm. He is pushing for the bill's passage.

The business is visibly slow in the off-season. But during July and August, the restaurant depends on 200 employees to move turkey dinners all day long. Mr. Hart is worried his guests won't return if they get merely adequate service this summer.

"If they don't get excellent service," he said, "that could have a very bad long term affect on the tourism in this area of the country."

Russell Hart says only about 30 of his summer workers are foreign. But when he heard about the limit on H2-Bs, he immediately started looking for other local employees to wait tables.

"Maybe four or five weeks ago, we had an ad in, specifically for waitstaff. We had nine people apply. And out of those nine, only one was truly what we call waitstaff material," he said. "So it is quite a challenge when you advertise and you are not getting the person that you are looking for."

But as Mr. Hart's experience illustrates, it's not that people don't want the jobs. It's that the employers don't always want the potential employees.

"Some of them might not have proper English, even though they are American, and they wouldn't be able to rise to how you want your business presented," he said. "I think that pretty much is what the issue is."

Still, many in New Hampshire's tourism industry, like Suzanne Ingram, the personnel director at a resort hotel - say local residents just aren't interested in the seasonal jobs they offer.

"Absolutely, my goal is to hire every local person in the area," she said. "However, there aren't that many people who are interested in being laid off 16 weeks of the year, and not having health benefits offered to them."

Given the seasonal nature of the work, and the standards business owners demand, foreign workers are an ideal solution. That's the message Francis Morrisey hears, when he travels around the state. He runs New Hampshire's H2-B visa program and works closely with businesses in the tourist industry.

"I talk with the employers and they tell me, many of the workers, whether they are from Jamaica or Eastern Europe, where unemployment is extremely high ... they're so motivated, they're bright, they are hard working," he said. "It means a tremendous amount to them: their future, being able to go to school, support their family back home, is riding on this. It's life and death, being played out right here. It's economic survival."

But many people here in New Hampshire face economic struggles of their own. About 3,000 unemployed workers live in New Hampshire's three northern-most counties. Larry Kelly, executive director for the Tri-County Community Action Program, says he knows at least 100 people who are interested in these seasonal jobs.

"There are people who want them and need them," he said. "But the seasonal is one of four obstacles standing between folks and positions. In addition to the fact that it is seasonal, and needless to say year round work is preferable, there is the problem of wages. There is the problem of benefits, there aren't any, or they are inadequate. And then there is the question of transportation."

Mr. Kelly says his organization could help resolve local transportation or daycare needs, and employers would be getting a dependable U.S. workforce that right now isn't working. But figuring out how to hire more unemployed New Hampshire residents for the summer season is not the most pressing issue for many of the state's businesses. For the tourism industry that problem takes a backseat to just trying to fill their jobs before the guests arrive.

XS
SM
MD
LG