2018-05-12 / News

Chance Dictates Whether Employers Can Fulfill Summer Worker Demands

By Stephanie Fortino

The seasonal jobs boom in St. Ignace, Mackinac Island, and Mackinaw City is growing more dependent on foreign workers, but changing regulatory processes and lotteries are making it unclear, again this year, how many will be available.

Because the number of summer jobs far exceeds the number of available workers in the area, many employers rely on two visa programs to staff businesses, the H-2B seasonal non-agricultural worker program that brings workers to the U.S. for six months and the J-1 cultural exchange program for international students to work and experience American culture for about four months. While the H-2B Visa program is more expensive, requiring attorneys to file paperwork and petitions through a series of federal agencies, it provides essential and trained staff for the extended tourist season.

In the United States, there are 33,000 H-2B visas available twice a year, and applications for the summer visas opened January 1. This year, the Department of Labor received more than 81,000 applications on that first day, said Anneke Myers, the personnel director for the Balsam Shop, Loon Feather, and Little Acorn on Mackinac Island. As part of the application requirements, employers can only apply for visas 90 days before the date when they need workers. Many businesses listed April 1 to get applications in as early as possible. Another 20,000 applications, or so, were received after January 1.

Last year Congress removed an exemption that said returning H-2B workers wouldn’t count toward the 33,000 cap. After losing the exemption and many seasonal staffers who have worked at local businesses for years, employers are learning to cope with the increased unreliability of the H-2B program.

The situation this year was exacerbated by the increased competition for the visas, Mrs. Myers says. The cap for the winter visas, which start in October, was met early, so many of those employers applied again in January to get workers for the spring. The visas are also available to a wide range of jobs throughout the country, everything except agricultural work, so landscapers in the southwest are competing for a limited number of visas with resort communities in the north and employers who need carpenters and other skilled workers.

The Department of Labor decides whether employers have a need for international labor and the Department of Homeland Security approves the visa petitions. As in previous years, the Department of Labor reviewed applications on a first-come, first-served basis, but issued all approvals on the same date, February 20. Then, the Department of Homeland Security waited until it had 47,000 applications from the Department of Labor to hold a lottery to pick which employers would receive workers. Along the way, the departments have been overloaded with applications and have been changing when and how they would issue visas.

“It’s been all over the board. It’s been really frustrating,” Mrs. Myers said. “Some businesses got in the cap, others didn’t.”

While some employers got all of their labor petitions approved, others only got some of the workers they need.

“It’s really a mess,” Mrs. Myers said.

Local employers visit lawmakers in Washington to convince them of the important seasonal need for international workers. U.S. Representative Jack Bergman and Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters included language in the omnibus spending bill that allows the Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security to raise the H- 2B visa cap, which is the same language that was included last year. In 2017, the federal government could have raised the cap in May, but waited until July to approve more petitions.

Mackinac Island Employer

Adjusts International

Worker Strategy

The Chippewa Hotel, Lilac Tree Inn and Suites, and Pink Pony restaurant received the late-season visas last year, said general manager Brian Bailey. He employs about 60 H-2B workers, and this year he has been able to fill about 40 of those positions with transfer H-2B workers who are already in the U.S. Last year, he didn’t get 40 of their needed 60 international workers until around Labor Day.

“Every year is a challenge because we’re dealing with this legislation,” Mr. Bailey said. “Last year was beyond anything I’ve experienced. . . We survived it, and we’re better for it. We hope never to go through it again.”

This year, Mr. Bailey knew he would get “capped out” because he doesn’t need workers until later in April. Last year, he didn’t expect not to get his H-2B staff, and he couldn’t secure enough in-country H-2B workers to fill positions. In anticipation of yet another challenging employment year in 2018, Mr. Bailey said the company decided to spend the additional expense late in the season to get the H-2B workers to the United States from Jamaica, the Philippines, and Mexico. They also found them jobs for the winter so they could stay in the U.S. to work on the Island again this summer.

H-2B workers can extend their visas for up to three years, moving every six months for seasonal work. After spending the winter working at resorts in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and West Virginia, these workers are expected to arrive on Mackinac Island Friday, April 13, in time for the Chippewa Hotel, Pink Pony, and Lilac Tree openings Thursday, May 3.

Last year was the worst season for employment Mr. Bailey has experienced in his 22 years as general manager, and 32 years on the Island. The H-2B workers fill many laborintensive positions like housekeeping, line cooks, dishwashers, and kitchen helpers, many of which had to go unfilled in 2017.

“Last year, it was terrible,” he said. “Out of 150 [needed] employees, we probably had about 120.”

The management staff has to pick up the slack to cover the nearly 20% labor shortage. Mr. Bailey and Pink Pony Food and Beverage Manager Jodi Chambers filled in for the missing line cooks, working long hours almost every day, in addition to their managerial duties. They also brought in more J-1 Visa workers, Mr. Bailey said, but the college students often want more appealing jobs, didn’t want to clean hotel rooms or dishes, and were prone to leaving.

“All of your management has to step in and they have to work harder,” he said. “Everyone you do have, you appreciate.” Hopefully, he added, the guests don’t perceive the under-staffing.

As part of the H-2B application process, employers must advertise extensively to hire as many American workers as possible. Each year, the company spends tens of thousands of dollars on advertising. And he, like most other businesses in the area, hires any American who walks through the door. When Mr. Bailey advertised for 60 open positions, he received only one [local] application for a line cook position at the Pink Pony.

“I just hired him,” Mr. Bailey said. “I didn’t care about his experience.”

He continued, “This year, I’ve definitely seen a [downturn in] the number of applications. We’re not getting as many this year for some reason.”

The seasonal nature of jobs on Mackinac Island is the biggest challenge, since few Americans want to relocate for work that is only six months out of the year. Housing also poses a problem, Mr. Bailey said, as it is limited, or is dormitory-style. And most of the jobs that must be filled are entry-level positions that require physical labor, which, in general, Americans don’t want to do.

“Last year, by far, I had the highest turnover ever,” he said. “You hire anyone who comes through the door. And I don’t think I had one [new] American work out.”

He continued, “It was a revolving door.”

He does have a core group of returning American workers who are essential to the businesses, comprising about 20% of the employees.

With unemployment rates as low as 4%, there are few workers available across the board, and especially high-quality workers, Mr. Bailey said. If he could, Mr. Bailey said he would rather hire Americans because it costs between $1,500 and $2,000 in extra expenses to hire H-2B workers.

This year, the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security could still decide to raise the cap and grant more H-2B visa petitions.

“I’m still hopeful I’ll get some visas,” Mr. Bailey said, “I have six people who are very important to running our business that are stuck down there in Jamaica.”

Over the years, these employees have become essential members of the businesses, he said, and their absence will be felt if the petitions aren’t approved.

Season Looks Good on the Mainland

Jim Clapperton of Michigan Works in St. Ignace said he believes the employment season is shaping up well. The annual St. Ignace Job Fair is Wednesday, April 11, and the number of employers participating is down slightly this year, he said, mostly because employers have hosted their own job fairs.

Mr. Clapperton hasn’t heard as much about the international worker situation this year, but he did note it seems in general that employers aren’t as frantic as they were in 2017. Last year, he had a flurry of employers who wanted to participate in the St. Ignace Job Fair at the last minute. Since employers expected to have a difficult time hiring H-2B workers this year, some decided to take other steps and get workers from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Mr. Clapperton said.

“A lot of people are putting more emphasis on retaining the employees from last year,” he added, noting that many employees who frequently visit his office are already back to work for the season.

Worker shortages do impact local businesses, he said, adding that a lack of employees, rather than lack of customers, have dictated the closing date of some businesses in St. Ignace in recent years.

In Mackinaw City, Joe Lieghio said his family is in good shape for the season, as almost all of his petitions for H-2B workers were approved.

Having grown up in Mackinaw City and been in the hotel and restaurant business for decades, Mr. Lieghio said the problems with seasonal worker demand are not new. His family owns 20 hotels and 11 restaurants, including The Depot in their newly acquired Mackinaw Crossings Mall, adventure golf courses, kayak rentals, zip lines, and a Starbucks.

Last weekend was the Mackinaw Meltdown Celebration, which included a bridal expo, roller derby tournament, and other activities and promotions. Mr. Lieghio’s H-2B workers were supposed to arrive in Mackinaw City Sunday, April 1, but as of Friday, April 6, they hadn’t shown up, owing to a backlog at the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica. To get ready for the weekend, the staff already on site, including managers and maintenance workers, had to pitch in and help clean hotel rooms, Mr. Lieghio said.

Four out of five of Mr. Lieghio’s petitions were approved. In all, they will receive 164 H-2B workers to cover the 174 workers they sought. The 10 positions they didn’t fill were for dishwashers. Over the years, he has tried to automate as much of the operations as possible, including installing new dishwasher machines, but someone still has to run them. To overcome the shortage, he has purchased more tableware for their restaurants so the dishwashers have to be run less frequently.

“It’s a minor problem,” Mr. Lieghio said, “not like housekeepers.”

Mr. Lieghio expects his family will employ more than 1,000 people this year at their properties. By comparison, there are 800 or so residents of Mackinaw City. Most of his workers, about 700, are American workers, and H-2Bs and J-1 workers help fill the other positions. The family has hired more J-1s this year than before, in anticipation of H-2B shortages.

“That being said, everybody who walks through the door, every American, gets a job. We hire everyone,” Mr. Lieghio said.

The advantage of H-2B employees, Mr. Lieghio said, is that they are trained hospitality professionals, who are willing to work hard. Many of the J-1 workers are students who come from affluent families and aren’t used to doing physical labor.

Mr. Lieghio had considered hiring workers from Puerto Rico if their H- 2B applications weren’t approved.

“What I heard is that there hasn’t been a lot of success,” he said, because Puerto Ricans would rather have year-around jobs in Florida, closer to their families.

Overall, Mr. Lieghio said the season is looking good, as hotel reservations are up about 17% already.

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