2008-05-17 / Top News

Island Businesses Find New Ways To Fill Summer Employment Gap

By Ryan Schlehuber

John Hulett has been busy traveling this winter, although not for a vacation. Rather, the general manager for Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island was searching for employees to fill the 610-person employee roster for the fast-approaching tourism season.

The Grand, like many seasonal businesses on Mackinac Island and in the Straits area this year, is faced with the problem of not being able to have its H2B visa workers return owing to a political squabble over immigration on Capitol Hill. While continuing to lobby legislators for a return of the foreign workers, local employers are filling their staffs this year with more college students and with foreign workers actively recruited from other resort areas in the country. Customer service, they say, will not decline for Straits area visitors this summer.

"I have made three trips to Florida, and two, so far, to Arizona, all for finding people to hire for the season," said Mr. Hulett, who added that he didn't need to take any recruiting trips last year.

That is because the Grand, like many seasonal small businesses throughout the country, have been able to retain H2B visa workers from foreign countries who are hired to fill the support staff positions such as cooks, dishwashers, housekeepers, and landscape laborers, positions that remain open when American workers cannot be found.

Not so this year, as Congress let lapse an exemption that allows foreign workers with approved H2B visas for the past three years to not be counted against the 66,000-worker visa cap. With the exemption in place in recent years, workers were assured they could return to their Straits area jobs. Without it, those workers can be snapped up by other resort areas in the country, which have earlier season openings. The cap was reached in January, so an exemption would be the only way small seasonal businesses in the Midwest would qualify to receive any of their returning H2B visa workers.

H2B visa workers have been exempt from the cap since 2004, with more than 120,000 H2B visas granted last year. The exemption expired in September 2007. Businesses and business coalition groups like Save Our Small Businesses, that represents more than 1,000 businesses from across the country, have been heavily lobbying to Capitol Hill to pass two bills that would continue the exemption.

Grand Hotel President Dan Musser was on a five-person panel representing pro-H2B visa businesses that testified in front of an immigration subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives April 16. It was the largest turnout of people attending a hearing ever, with standing room only, according to Save Our Small Businesses President Hank Lavery.

"I think we held up our own," said Mr. Musser about the hearing, which lasted five hours.

Mr. Musser said his panel dispelled much misleading information about businesses not trying as hard to hire American workers, and feels he won the favor of many undecided committee members.

Owing to it being an election year, many high profile politicians, such as U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential candidate, do not want to touch the two bills awaiting Congressional decision, said Anneke Myers, personnel director for the Island's Balsam Shop, Pontiac Lodge, and the Village Inn Restaurants in St. Ignace, Pellston, and on the Island.

While Capitol Hill continues to delay its decision, Island business owners like Patti Ann Moskwa have had to scramble to find workers to be ready for the start of the summer tourism season, which began, for most businesses in the Straits area, at the end of April.

Mrs. Moskwa, along with a small group of other Island and northern Michigan business leaders, has made four trips to Washington, D.C., in the last six months seeking sponsors for the two bills proposing an exemption of returning H2B visa employees. Businesses have had to find an alternative course of action to prepare for the busy summer season that has already started.

"We couldn't wait until the last minute," said Mrs. Moskwa, who owns Horn's Gaslight Bar and Yankee Rebel Tavern with her husband, Steve. "Island businesses have had to go to 'Plan B,' which went into action the first week of March. We're still on stand-by," though, on the H2B visa exemption progress.

"Plan B" for employers has been recruiting more college students and using legal loopholes in the H2B visa program, both resulting in traveling to recruit from various winter resort states. The U.S. Immigration Citizenship and Immigration Service program allows businesses to "borrow," or transfer, workers who received visas already from other businesses in the country. Those workers can extend the life of their visas long enough to work through the Straits area's main tourism season, to the end of October.

Grand Hotel, for example, which usually has up to 360 H2B visa workers, managed to find at least 60 returning H2B visa workers this year by "borrowing" them from other resorts. Long-time Grand employees Headley Eubanks and Steadley Pinnock, for example, were able to return because they were already working on an H2B visa in another state this past winter.

Businesses will also likely rely more on J1 visas, used mainly by foreign college students to work temporarily and travel throughout the United States for a few months. These visas are not capped, but usually J1 visa workers cannot be relied upon to work a full season.

A Q visa, a program that is fairly new to the Island and Straits area, allows businesses to bring in foreign workers who will hold teaching programs while working in the U.S. The Grand, for example, has up to 10 Austrian chefs this year who will hold cooking classes for hotel guests and visitors, said Mr. Hulett.

Many year-around businesses in the area also may lend visa workers to other local businesses which, according to Grand Hotel's legal counsel, is allowed, "as long as they are working within the same market," said Mr. Musser. "They can't work on the Island and then go to Georgia to work at a company there, for example."

Mrs. Moskwa and Mr. Musser say there is much work and progress still to be done on Capitol Hill.

"We will be fine but this will not solve the problem," she said. "We're not going to give up on it because it's a good program. We're going to continue to fight. I'm keeping my bag half-packed for my next trip to Washington, D.C."

The majority of Island businesses that use H2B visa workers may be set, at least for this summer, Mr. Musser said, but many businesses elsewhere may be forced to close because of Congress' delay on the decision.

"We are going to continue to explore all avenues out there," said Mr. Musser. "This has been, by far, the hardest year I've ever experienced."

Two-pronged Challenge:

Filling the Quantity,

Keeping up Quality With public attention drawn to local businesses struggling to fill positions, many business owners are adamantly assuring customers the quality of service and the experience of visiting the area will be unhindered.

Much of the challenge for businesses, said Mrs. Myers, is having to train the newcomers. For returning visitors, they will have to familiarize themselves with new faces.

It may mean a lot of overtime hours for undermanned staffs, as well, said Mrs. Myers.

"The standards of workers hired may have to be lowered just because some businesses will struggle to fill all of their open positions," said Mrs. Myers.

She said one downstate business director she knows usually has a point system that applicants must meet. Because of the lack of American workers wanting minimum wage positions, such as dishwashing, and with H2B visa workers unable to return, his point system more than likely will be tossed out this year.

"Businesses may be forced to hire anyone regardless of their qualifications," said Mrs. Myers.

This is one of the main reasons the H2B visa program has worked so well for small seasonal businesses, said Mrs. Myers.

"People think we are getting cheap labor through the H2B program, but we didn't go to this program for cheap labor, we just wanted labor," said Mrs. Myers. "Every business involved in the H2B program has proven that it cannot hire enough American workers for these support staff positions."

The difficulty for local employers has been persuading American workers to relocate to the area, especially on an island, for a job that lasts just a season, coupled with lack of housing for families, and the trend of high school and college students not wanting so-called "low end" jobs.

The H2B visa workers are reliable and hard working, said Mrs. Moskwa, as most come to the U.S. to provide for their families back home.

Applications for managerial, bartending, and server positions are stacked as thick as a Bible on her desk, Mrs. Myers pointed out, but said she is lucky to hire more than two Americans for the more menial jobs, which she refers to as "support staff positions."

"Before H2B, we couldn't keep people on in our support staff positions," said Mrs. Myers. "We were hiring anyone that was alive and we didn't care about their prior records."

College students and high school students made up almost all of support staff hirees a little over a decade ago, but because the area's tourism season has extended from early May to late October, businesses were faced with filling many open positions after school resumed in August.

"We were looking for reliable and long-term workers and it was hard to find American workers willing to relocate for a seasonal job," said Mrs. Myers.

Foreign workers make up only a small percentage of staff at most businesses, said Mrs. Myers, who hires 150 summer workers and 45 year-around workers for her businesses. Of those summer jobs, 38 positions are filled with H2B workers.

Grand Hotel's staff of 610 workers includes 320 visa workers, so far.

Mrs. Moskwa's two businesses fill 65 of the 80 positions with Americans.

Getting H2B workers is not as inexpensive as some people may think, either, said Mrs. Myers. Even getting one worker may cost a business $5,000, just to get that person here.

"You're talking travel costs to get them here, legal fees, and just getting them started, not to mention recruiting expenses and the advertising costs to find American workers," she said. Businesses are required to advertise for American workers first, then show proof of their efforts to qualify for bringing in foreign employees.

Much of the argument against using the H2B visa program is that it seemingly steals away jobs from Americans. Mrs. Myers counters that no H2B visa worker is stealing a position from any American applicant.

"We will gladly take American workers," she said. "Find them for us, because we can't. They are not turned down, they're just not there."

As she was speaking with The St. Ignace NewsWednesday, April 2, Mrs. Myers received a telephone call from Oniel Lewars, a Jamaican worker on the Island for the past few years. He was calling to ask if Mrs. Myers or anyone had an available visa open.

Mrs. Myers said she has been steadily getting calls from H2B visa workers seeking to return to the Island.

"It's tough to tell them that we can't do anything for them right now," she said. "All I can say is to find a job in Jamaica or in their country, and maybe we will see them next year."

Mrs. Moskwa said the other side of the H2B visa issue is that the majority of foreign workers who come to the Island to work for the season, where they make enough money to support their family for the year, will struggle.

"It's hard to say to so many of these people that sorry, we can't bring you back," said Mrs. Moskwa. "They're good, responsible, hard-working people that can't come back."

Looking forward to the tourism season, though, Mrs. Moskwa believes visitors will still enjoy their time in the Straits area, and businesses will adjust to the changes.

"Everybody has been working together on this and the majority of new workers coming in have a good resume," said Mrs. Moskwa. "The hard part is done. Everything is going to be just fine for our visitors this summer, but there is still work to be done."

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