Sarah Diment, owner of the Beachmere Inn in Ogunquit, closes down one of the rooms she has stopped booking because of a serious shortage of housekeeping workers. Staff photo by Jill Brady

Maine’s hospitality sector is facing the toughest labor market in recent memory, a situation made worse by the federal government’s delay in granting visas for seasonal foreign workers who many businesses rely on to fill jobs during the summer tourism season.

At issue are the more than 2,100 foreign workers who Maine employers have been unable to hire through the H-2B visa program. The Department of Homeland Security has yet to increase the number of work visas available, although the DHS was authorized to do so in a budget that Congress passed in early May.

Without those workers, some businesses have been forced to cut back hours, close hotel rooms and lay off U.S. employees.

“I’ve never been this understaffed since I’ve been here,” said Sarah Diment, owner of the 73-room Beachmere Inn, who has worked at the Ogunquit resort for 22 years.

Diment typically hires nine people through the H-2B program, but hasn’t been able to get any visa workers this year. That has crippled her housekeeping staff. She will be down to five housekeepers in the next two weeks and needs 12 to do the work. To compensate, she has taken 10 percent of her rooms off the market and is thinking about closing her restaurant one day a week. She is worried that understaffing will start to affect her guests’ experience.

“I am trying not to overwhelm the local staff we have,” Diment said. “It is becoming a morale problem.”

If more visas are approved, she still would have to wait four to six weeks for processing to get workers to Maine, she said. Even if she can’t get workers until September, she’ll be grateful.

“I know it sounds awfully desperate, but it is getting a little ridiculous,” Diment said.

WORSENED BY TIGHT LABOR MARKET

The H-2B visa program is designed for businesses that need seasonal workers and can’t find enough employees locally. In Maine’s tight labor market – unemployment is currently at 3 percent – demand for those workers is at a nine-year high, but complications with the program mean fewer employers are getting the workers they need.

The program allows 66,000 workers into the country annually, divided equally between the first and second half of the calendar year. The annual cap was reached in March, when many Maine hotels, inns and restaurants still had applications for visas pending.

To fix the problem, Congress authorized Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly in the May budget bill to make up to 63,500 more visas available this year. Lawmakers from Maine and elsewhere were optimistic it would be a short-term solution, but no visas have been processed in the month since the budget passed.

It is unclear when the DHS and federal Department of Labor will start issuing visas or how many might be available. Maine employers requested about 2,877 workers this season but only 700 visas have been approved, said Greg Dugal, director of government affairs for the Maine Innkeepers Association.

In Senate testimony last week, Kelly said he was receiving equal pressure from lawmakers who wanted to increase the visa cap and those who were opposed to it. His department was “to likely increase numbers for this year, perhaps not by the entire number that I am authorized,” Kelly said.

In an email Wednesday, DHS spokeswoman Joanne Talbot said Kelly was reviewing the law to determine whether he is required to increase the number of visas and how to do so.

“DHS needs to determine that the needs of U.S. businesses cannot be satisfied by U.S. workers in order to implement any increase in the cap number,” Talbot said.

Maine’s congressional delegation has been pushing hard to make that case. In a letter May 12, Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins and Reps. Bruce Poliquin and Chellie Pingree were among 87 lawmakers who wrote to Kelly and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta urging them to act immediately to help seasonal businesses get the employees they need to have a successful season.

“My impression is that if this isn’t solved in a couple weeks it could be too late,” King said in an interview Wednesday.

“Every day a restaurant is closed, you can never recapture those revenues,” he said.

Maine’s hospitality industry had a record-breaking year in 2016, taking in $3.6 billion, a 7 percent increase over the previous year. Record revenues were helped by a strong tourism economy, which brought 35.8 million visitors to the state in 2016.

The H-2B program has been criticized for bringing in foreign labor to take jobs that Americans could fill. There also are examples of fraud, such as charging foreign workers illegal fees and finding ways to hire foreign workers when Americans are available, as well as labor abuses.

King said those problems are limited and should not stand in the way of a program that supports local workers.

“We should have review and accountability to prevent fraud, but that should not be a reason to delay action on something that is very important to a large section of the Maine economy,” he said.

GOVERNOR APPEALS TO WASHINGTON

Gov. Paul LePage also has gotten involved. On Tuesday morning, LePage told morning radio show hosts George Hale and Ric Tyler that he was “sending a letter to Washington today on the H-2B system to try to get the federal government to allow us to bring more foreign workers in because the tourist industry is struggling (and) can’t find enough workers.”

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett declined Wednesday to release a copy of that letter until the governor’s office had received confirmation it had been received in Washington. Bennett would not elaborate on the contents of the letter and referred to the governor’s comments to the WVOM radio hosts.

Some businesses have been able to fill their staffs without H-2B workers. Patrick Morgan, president of Witham Family Hotels, said the company that owns 13 properties mostly around Bar Harbor has been able to find enough workers by bringing in H-2B visa holders who have gotten extensions, getting green card holders from countries such as Haiti, and recruiting Maine workers who live farther away.

“We are trying to source from as many possible avenues we can possibly think of,” Morgan said.

LOSING BUSINESS, LOOKING AHEAD

But for the Pentagoet Inn, a small hotel in Castine, delays in visa processing forced it to close its restaurant and reduce hours and pay for eight local workers. Julie Van de Graaf, one of the owners, said she is still holding out hope for a solution to be reached in Washington and she can get the five workers she needs for the kitchen and housekeeping. The inn already has had people cancel reservations because the restaurant isn’t open, Van de Graaf said.

“It was really hard to open for Memorial Day weekend, we had to turn away people,” she said. Like some other employers, Van de Graaf said she can’t find the help she needs locally and uses foreign workers even though the process is expensive.

At a meeting Wednesday in Portland, business leaders said transportation, housing, early school and college start dates, competition from year-round employment and reluctance by young people to work more than part time made hiring this season a challenge.

The absence of foreign workers this year brought into focus structural problems with Maine’s hospitality labor force, said Steve Hewins, president and CEO of the Maine Innkeepers Association and Maine Restaurant Association.

“Really, not having these people now illustrates what we are facing going forward,” he said.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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