2009-02-14 / Top News

Summer Employers Still Seek Long-term Staffing Solution

"...the need to provide the best deal and best value that we can is even more important. But we can't do that if we don't have workers." - Joe Lieghio, Mackinaw City
By Ryan Schlehuber

A federally mandated cap for allowing a limited number of H2B visa workers into the country each year has already been filled, shutting out northern Michigan seasonal summer tourism businesses, but local employers say a worker transfer program has made it easier than last year to find workers for this summer. They also are hopeful that a bill introduced in Congress last week will reinstate the special visa exemption program that allowed returning workers to reenter the country and not be counted on the nation-wide hiring limit.

Some business owners in the Straits area say they're able to call back last summer's foreign national workers who spent the winter working at other resort areas in the U.S., a program the workers can take advantage of for only three years. Many of the H2B visa workers are specially trained in hospitality trades, and they come from a variety of countries, including Jamaica. This workforce has been employed by Straits area businesses during busy summer months since the mid-1990s to offset the shortfall in the available local labor force.

Local employers say they face higher traveling costs to recruit workers from winter resort areas this year.

Brian Bailey's traveling plans include trips to winter resorts in Colorado, Arizona, and Orlando and Naples, Florida, to recruit workers for the upcoming summer season for Chippewa Hotel Waterfront and Lilac Tree Hotel, both on Mackinac Island.

Although his businesses, like many in the Straits area, now face more traveling costs to recruit and must increase hourly wages for each vacant position to compete with other summer businesses, Mr. Bailey is finding the process of securing workers for the year easier than last year.

"Last year was extremely difficult trying to find a labor force," said Mr. Bailey, "but this year we're much better off because much of the base of our new employees from last year is returning."

Between 75% and 80% of his workforce from last year is returning, said Mr. Bailey, and he credits that to new working relationships with recruiting agencies and with winter resort employers which have helped locate available H2B visa workers already in the country. These workers can transfer from one seasonal business to another for up to three years before having to return to their homeland.

Grand Hotel's John Hulett, who is in charge of filling more than 600 positions for the Island summer resort, isn't as close to hitting the panic button this winter as he was last winter, either.

"The process is better this year. We're in a better position to fill our staff needs," said Mr. Hulett. "Last year was a hard learning experience for us."

The federal government controls how many foreign national workers can enter the country on the visa program. Local summer businesses have been trying to return their H2B visa working staff since Congress let lapse a 2004 exemption that allows foreign workers with approved visas for the past three years to not be counted against the 66,000-worker nation-wide visa cap.

Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) and Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) introduced legislation Thursday, February 5, to reinstate the H2B exemption provision for three years.

"This bill protects our borders, protects American jobs, and rewards people who play by the rules," said Senator Mikulski. "Without these seasonal workers, many businesses will not survive. They'll be forced to limit services, lay off permanent U.S. workers or, worse yet, close their doors."

Congressman Bart Stupak is expected to introduce a similar bill in the House.

In the meantime, businesses are adapting in other ways, using other programs to recruit foreign nationals, such as the Q visa, which brings workers in on a cultural exchange program, used last year by Grand Hotel for several Austrian chefs.

Employers are also recruiting more American college students, and European students under J1 visas, although many of the students will not be able to work through October.

The H2B visa workforce has been the most reliable for local seasonal employers because workers are allowed into the country for up to six months and are available from spring through the end of October.

"They are dedicated workers who come here to work and earn money for their families," said Mr. Bailey of H2B workers.

They fill a seasonal niche used in resorts, construction, lumber, and landscaping.

"Save Small Businesses" Puts Hopes in Legislative Change

The cap is filling up faster and faster each year now, said Hank Lavery, president of a nonprofit organization called Save Small Businesses, the torch bearer and spokesperson for seasonal employers seeking to keep their returning H2B workers on staff.

"Anyone in the northern part of the country, they are not going to get their H2B visa workers," said Mr. Lavery, owner of a seasonal lifeguard employment agency in Springfield, Virginia.

Last year, only a select few employers in the Straits area, like Grand Hotel, received some H2B visa workers before the cap was filled, but this year the cap was filled more than a month before any summer seasonal business could apply.

Employers can apply for visa workers 120 days before opening their doors for the season. Mackinac Island's summer tourism season begins in May.

"Last year, it seemed to spread out a little more, as far as businesses applying for visas," said Mr. Lavery. "This year, though, those northern businesses got nothing and we're not sure why."

Adding to the frustration this winter was a delay in visa application paperwork, making some employers miss the application deadline, which employers have argued was owing to the U.S. Department of Labor consolidating offices in Chicago and not having enough people to process the papers quickly.

Mr. Lavery and thousands of small seasonal business owners have been hoping their exemption to the national cap will be renewed with legislation. Such a bill died without approval in the legislature last year, but the bill introduced February 5 provides new hope.

Mr. Lavery believes with a new year, a new Congress, a new president, and with election campaign worries now behind them, that legislators on Capitol Hill will finally push the exemption through.

"We're counting on that with a new Congress and a new president, but Congress also has a lot on its plate. You have to ask, Where do we fall in line? But if Congress really looks at the number of businesses that have applied for H2B visa workers, I can't believe they would not realize that there is a serious need here for small seasonal businesses to survive," he said.

"Many businesses, even though the percentage of their H2B workers is small compared to the entire staff, if they can't fill those positions, they can't open," Mr. Lavery continued. "And if they can't open, then Americans are losing jobs, too."

Some Local Businesses Find Ways To Cut Staff Needs

Operating 11 hotels, four restaurants, and two adventure miniature golf courses, all in Mackinaw City, Joe Lieghio and his family understand Mr. Lavery's point.

"Since Mackinaw City businesses began using the H2B workers system in 1995, there has been a lot of building here, with more restaurants, shops, and hotels, and it's based on the fact that there is this labor force available," said Mr. Lieghio, whose family has been in business in Mackinaw City since 1964. "And with the summer season extending into the fall, and costs of utilities, minimum wage, and everything else going up, the need to provide the best deal and best value that we can is even more important. But we can't do that if we don't have workers."

To cut down on the number of needed workers, the Lieghio family installed an automated laundry center that eliminated 40 positions, however, Mr. Lieghio recognized that not all local employers are able to cut down needed staff.

Mr. Lieghio's frustration over a lack of available workers mirrors that of most summer employers in the Straits area.

"We do try to recruit American workers," said Anneke Myers, personnel director for Balsam Shop, Pontiac Lodge, and Village Inn Restaurants. "We've recruited in Detroit, Flint, and the U.P., but there aren't that many American workers who are willing to move away for only a few months to be a cook or maid.

"We've scaled back our staff, but we're not going to know for sure if we scaled back too much or not enough," she added.

The Chippewa and Lilac Tree hotels employ 150 people but are scaling back the number of H2B visa workers this year.

"We are going in very conservatively," Mr. Bailey said. "Colorado is tight, too. We're all hoping for a good season."

Mr. Bailey said even though recruiting new employees across the country is easier than last winter, there is still the concern of providing quality care and service to customers.

"We did have a lot of turnover [last year] because we were using a lot of new people," said Mr. Bailey. "We had between a 10% to 15% fallout, and we're probably not going to ask back 20% to 25% of our staff from last year. But we did find a lot of really good workers, too, and they are coming back.

"Not everyone can work and live on an island," Mr. Bailey continued. "It lends itself back to the H2B system. Our H2B workers were dedicated and reliable workers."

It's a catch-22, said Mrs. Myers.

"We have jobs available for American workers but they're not getting filled, so then we use foreign workers through the H2B visa system, and now the federal government is not allowing them in," she said.

"Now," she continued, "with the current system, we can transfer H2B visa workers who are already in the country. But what happens after the three years when they have to return home?"

Mrs. Myers said her company's biggest concern with the ability to transfer H2B visa workers is that those coming in under the cap won't have the skills to work in the resort and hospitality industry, so local tourism businesses will be fighting for a smaller number of available H2B workers with the rest of the country's summer tourism businesses.

"A lot of small businesses depend on finding workers this way, through the H2B visa system," said Mr. Lavery. "I'm hoping for strong supporters on Capitol Hill that will help us introduce a bill to give our small businesses relief. Whether it's a three- or five-year extension on the clause, the key is returning our workers. We'd all love to have something to help us now."

The bill introduced by Senators Mikulski and Specter, called the Save Our Small and Seasonal Business Act of 2009, will extend the H2B returning worker exemption, which expired in 2007, for an additional three years and extend the exemption to H2R workers, who already have held H2B visas for three years and are returning to the United States.

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