WELLS — Leanord Thompson sends three-quarters of his paycheck home to Savanna-la-Mar, a small town on Jamaica’s southwest coast.

The money supports his wife and five young daughters and helps send his neighbors’ children to school. Some goes to finish a home he’s building for his family. A little bit gets sent to his mother and eight siblings, who live in a poor agricultural town in the island’s interior.

Thompson, a 34-year-old cook, also buys bulk staple food such as cooking oil, rice and sugar, and then ships those goods home in plastic 50-gallon bins.

As for himself, Thompson hasn’t been home since 2015. In the summer, he works the line at Jake’s Seafood, a popular quick-order restaurant in Wells. In the winter, he travels to a golf resort that caters to the ultra-wealthy outside of Phoenix, Arizona, where he cooks at an Italian restaurant.

Leanord Thompson empties a basket of fried chicken into a bowl at Jake’s Seafood restaurant in Wells. Thompson is in the United States on a visa that expires this year, but he plans to apply again and come back to work. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

It is hard to have gone so long without seeing his family, Thompson admits. But he makes much more money in the United States than he can doing the same job in Jamaica. He is benefiting his family and community, he says, and that is what keeps him going.

“You’re going to miss your family and friends sometimes,” Thompson said, sitting in the small dining room at Jake’s before his shift. “But it’s working. You are not doing this for yourself anymore.”

Thompson is one of more than 1,000 foreign workers who come to Maine every summer on H-2B visas, a short-term visa program aimed at filling the ranks of hard-to-hire seasonal jobs such as cooks, dishwashers, housekeepers, landscapers and construction workers.

Federally certified H-2B job positions from Maine employers, by federal fiscal year

Notes: Federal fiscal years run from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. No data is available on how many visa holders actually filled these positions.

The program made headlines this spring, when Maine businesses scrambled to fill jobs after a federal limit on H-2B visas left hotels and restaurants without the workers they expected.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security eventually raised the cap to allow more workers in, but not until July, deep into Maine’s tourism season. The program has been criticized for poor labor conditions and accused of taking jobs from Americans – complaints that are dismissed by U.S. businesses.


Leading destinations for H-2B workers in Maine, fiscal year 2016

Notes: “Certified positions” indicates the number of jobs that employers have certified as eligible for employing H-2B visa holding workers. No data is available on how many visa holders actually filled these positions.

Town
Certified positions
Ogunquit
42
Bar Harbor
19
York
15
Boothbay Harbor
11
Wells
10

Thompson first came to Maine in 2013, and worked for a summer at a restaurant in Boothbay Harbor. He went home after that summer, planning to come back the next year, but had to stay home because of delays issuing visas.

In 2015, he came back and started working at Jake’s Seafood. That winter, on an extended visa, he went to Arizona for the first time. He’s repeated that pattern every year since.

Thompson is well-dressed with a cleanly trimmed beard. He’s laid-back and quick with a smile or joke.

Hard work seems to be a constant for Thompson. The fast pace and long hours of a short-order kitchen appeal to his own work ethic. He typically mans a fry station at Jake’s to be in the epicenter of the action.

“I don’t like to go to work and there is nothing to do. That’s not my style,” Thompson said.

When he’s not at work, Thompson hangs out with other Jamaicans working in the area. On days off, they go shopping. He speaks to his family every night.

When he’s in Arizona, Thompson meets Filipinos who are there doing the same thing – making money to build a better life for their families and doing what they can to help their neighbors.

“Everyone has the same problem with their communities,” Thompson said. “It really hurts your heart, you can only do so much.”

This is Thompson’s third, and final, year on his visa, which has been extended multiple times. In September, he’ll go home and see his family. But, he hopes, not for long.

He plans to apply again and come back this winter, maybe to work at a ski resort in Vermont.

Ky Wolterbeek, the co-owner of Jake’s Seafood, has employed Thompson every summer since 2015, along with a handful of other H-2B workers, mostly from Jamaica. The program is expensive, up to $10,000 a year for visa paperwork and fees. But, without it, her restaurant would be in serious trouble, Wolterbeek said.

“We can’t find enough staff locally,” Wolterbeek said. Some of her high school-age staff have so many other commitments they can only work a handful of hours a week. In comparison, H-2B workers are scheduled full time, 45-48 hours a week. Wolterbeek pays her employees well above minimum – $14 to $19 an hour. Pay for full-time kitchen workers with experience, like Thompson, is at the high end of the scale. She dismisses criticism that foreign workers are abused or forced to live in “squalor” in employer-supplied housing.

“It’s not true,” Wolterbeek said. “Basically, we have to have this program. We have to.”

Leading job categories for H-2B workers in Maine, fiscal year 2016

Notes: “Certified positions” indicates the number of jobs certified by Maine employers as eligible for employing H-2b visa holding workers. No data is available on how many visa holders actually filled these positions.

Job type
Certified positions
Housekeepers and cleaners
74
Cooks
48
Food prep workers
13
Dishwashers
12
Landscaping workers
10
Waitstaff
10

Thompson started working in kitchens early, and fondly remembered cleaning dishes with his mother. About 15 years ago, he graduated from a culinary program and started working in kitchens at big hotels in Negril, a resort town on Jamaica’s west coast. Eventually, he heard about the H-2B program and a friend recommended him for his first U.S. job, in Boothbay. He got a job offer that led to his first visa.

Since then, Thompson has recommended a few other Jamaicans to local employers, but he makes sure they also are hard workers. Some employers provide housing and transportation in the U.S. and he was reimbursed for the time it took him to get his visa in Jamaica, Thompson said. “These people spend their money to get you here,” he said. “Getting a person who doesn’t know what they’re doing, it doesn’t work for them.”

Translated to Jamaican value, Thompson’s U.S. wages are enough to pay for his daughters’ education – his oldest is 10 years old, his youngest 8 months – and to finish building their home and save up for emergencies.

Last year, his wife, Tancia, joined him in Wells on an H-2B visa of her own, doubling the cash sent home. Tancia was supposed to come back this summer, but she was among thousands of foreign workers who were blocked from coming by a federal visa cap. Only 66,000 H-2B visas are issued every year, and by the time Jake’s had a job to offer Tancia, the cap had been reached.

Thompson still doesn’t quite understand why Tancia wasn’t allowed to come over, and the complication was disappointing. An earlier rule let people who had previously received an H-2B visa back into the country without affecting the cap, and Thompson expected her to come back without a problem.

“We didn’t really understand this cap thing. I put a cap on my head,” Thompson joked. Even in the face of negative attitudes about immigration and suspicions that foreign workers are taking American jobs, he trusts that problems with the program will be fixed and he’ll get an H-2B visa to come back next year, and for years to come.

“To my knowledge, sometimes stuff is screwed up and somebody fixes it, that’s how it works,” he said.

“I’m not worried at all. I don’t think they are going to give me a hard time at all.”


WHAT IS AN H-2B VISA?
An H-2B visa is a non-immigrant, or temporary, travel document for foreign nationals who come to the U.S. to work hard-to-fill non-agricultural jobs on a short-term basis.

How long does an H-2B visa last?
Visa length is determined by how long employers need workers. The visa can be extended for qualifying employment in one-year increments. Visa holders can only stay in the United States a maximum of three years, but can reapply after returning to their home country.

What kind of jobs do H-2B workers do?

Temporary foreign workers are hired for entry-level seasonal jobs. In Maine, most work in the hospitality industry as cooks, dishwashers and housekeepers, but also work in forestry, construction, traveling carnivals and seafood processing.

Do H-2B visa holders earn the same as American workers?

Yes. Wages for foreign workers are set by the U.S. Department of Labor and are the same as those paid to U.S. workers for the same position. Maine businesses that petitioned for H-2B workers in 2017 had a mandated pay range of $8-$22 an hour, and the average pay for these visa holders was $11.07 an hour in 2016, according to Department of Labor data.

Do businesses need to prove they can’t hire locally before getting H-2B workers?

Yes. Employers have to advertise open positions before they can get authorization to hire foreign workers. Businesses need to prove there are not enough American workers to hire, that hiring foreign labor will not adversely affect local wages or working conditions, and that the labor is temporary.

Is there a limit to the number of H-2B visas issued?

Yes. There is an annual cap of 66,000 visas. Half the visas are issued from October to March and the rest from April to September. Unused visas in the first half of the year are made available in the second.

How many H-2B workers are there in Maine?

It is tough to say exactly how many visa holders work in Maine, but 140 employers requested federal certifications for 2,861 workers this year. In 2016, the U.S. issued 84,627 H-2B visas nationwide.

How do foreign nationals get a visa?

Employers have to apply o the U.S. Department of Labor for a certificate that shows they have a labor need they cannot fill with local U.S. workers. Employers then apply to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to receive approval for a visa for a citizen from an eligible country. If the form is approved, foreign nationals have to apply for the visa with the U.S. State Department at a U.S. embassy in their home country with proof that they have a job offer, and undergo a background check and other vetting. Many U.S. employers hire law firms or private agencies to go through the application process.

Has the Trump administration made or proposed any changes affecting H-2B visas?

A rule that allowed foreign workers who previously came to the U.S. on H-2B visas to return without affecting the cap ran out at the end of 2016. The annual visa cap was reached in March, leaving many summer businesses in Maine and elsewhere without the visa holders they expected. In July, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security approved a one-time increase of 15,000 H-2B visas specifically for businesses that could attest, under penalty of perjury, they would suffer irreparable harm if they could not hire visa holders. As of Sept. 19, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services stopped accepting visa petitions under the one-time expansion.


JAMAICA

The Caribbean island of Jamaica has had one of the world’s slowest-growing economies over the past 30 years and high public debt. It has been propped up by loans from the International Monetary Fund.

An IMF publication in May noted that while economic growth and employment are improving, the unemployment rate is high and poverty persists. Unemployment was reported to be 12.2 percent in April, a seven-year low, by the IMF. The per-capita income was reported to be about $8,200 by the World Bank. Such poverty has led many Jamaicans to leave the island to work elsewhere for part of the year.

To Americans, Jamaica is known as a vacation destination with beautiful beaches, and tourism is the island’s top industry. Americans also have embraced several high-profile Jamaicans, including Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt and the unlikely Jamaican national bobsled team.

Culturally, Jamaica is a rich blend of influences that include Africa and Great Britain, which in the 17th and 18th centuries established sugar plantations there and used it as a hub for the slave trade.

Cultural reference: Reggae music, particularly that of the late Bob Marley