2006-05-20 / Top News

Local Employers Anxiously Await New Worker Policy

Rules for Foreign Staff To Expire This Fall
By Ryan Schlehuber

At right: Miguel Ibarra Chavarria of Distrito Federal, Mexico, works as a street sweeper for Grand Hotel. At right: Miguel Ibarra Chavarria of Distrito Federal, Mexico, works as a street sweeper for Grand Hotel. Seasonal employers in the Eastern Upper Peninsula are closely watching the developing story of the federal government's attempt to pass a new immigration reform bill, as it may directly impact a policy that allows national foreign workers, under a six-month work visa program, to return each summer. Part of that program, which provides the H2B visas, expires this fall.

If the policy is not renewed, area employers will be hardpressed to fill staffing needs for next summer, as there will be a severe shortage of foreign workers throughout the country, says a national network of small and seasonal businesses called Save Small Business.

The H2B visa program caps the seasonal foreign workers at 66,000 a year, nation-wide, 33,000 workers for winter businesses and 33,000 workers for summer businesses. A business cannot apply for visas any sooner than 120 days before it opens for the season, and local businesses found all the visas gone by the time they could apply.

So last year, Washington issued a temporary exemption for workers who had been in the country the year before, so businesses here were able to bring back a workforce to get through the summer.

The temporary exemption was thought to allow the federal government time to figure out if the cap needs to be adjusted, but it is set to expire before anything more permanent will be put in place, so Save Small Business is seeking to extend the policy until 2009.

Congress has until September 30 to renew the Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act, which was passed last year as an amendment to a larger bill, called the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense, the Global War on Terror, and Tsunami Relief.

This spring, U.S. Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) and U.S. Representative Charlie Bass (R-New Hampshire) introduced a three-year policy extension as Senate Bill 2284 and House Bill 4740, but these have been packaged with the unresolved immigration reform bill, as an amendment.

Hank Lavery, president of Save Small Business, said the group's mission is simply to gather enough support on Capitol Hill to renew the policy for another three years.

Though the immigration reform bill and the H2B visa renewal policy address different issues (the reform bill is aimed at illegal immigrants living in America on a permanent basis), Mr. Lavery said packaging the policy with the immigration reform bill will keep the issue before Capitol Hill.

"This isn't necessarily a way to get the policy passed on the fast track," he said. "This is more about keeping it as a top priority for politicians.

"Opposition of the policy is very minimal," he said of the cap exemption. "We had 96 senators support it last year. That's a phenomenal number. What has employers a little anxious is more about lawmakers' priorities."

"When it came down to it," said Anneke Myers, personnel manager for the Village Inn restaurants, "co-sponsors (for the two bills on the exemption) attached it to the immigration reform bill because that bill is on the move. It is the same strategy that was used last year."

Nevertheless, said Mr. Lavery, "It's going to take a lot of hard work."

Mackinac Island employs about 5,000 seasonal workers at the height of the season and about 1,200 of them are H 2B visa workers, said Patti Ann Moskwa of Horns's Bar and Yankee Rebel Tavern. Some businesses in St. Ignace and Mackinaw City also use H2B visa workers.

Last January, during the peak summer seasonal application process, visa applications were backed up because Homeland Security and the Department of Labor was moved to larger quarters, said Mrs. Moskwa. Another problem, she said, was in Jamaica, where many of this area's workers are from. The country suffered a shortage of paper and the government did not have enough paper for visa applications.

Yet another year, Mrs. Moskwa remembers, visa applications were delayed when federal visa application processors received new computers but did not know how to operate them, she was told.

"A new year, a new problem, that's what I always say," said Mrs. Moskwa. "It's always something."

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