June 13, 2013

Hospitality industry loses guest workers

By Kevin Miller, Washington Bureau Chief, and and Karen Antonacci, Staff Writer

OGUNQUIT – Every tourist season for the past decade, the owners of The Beachmere Inn have relied on a handful of foreign workers to change linens, vacuum carpets and tidy up the 73 rooms in the waterfront hotel.

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

Sarah Diment said she tries each year to fill the spots with American workers, occasionally recruiting hours away in Bangor or even farther north. But because of the seasonal nature of the jobs and competition for workers in a town with twice as many hotel rooms as full-time residents, Diment inevitably looks abroad to fill three or four spots in her 17-person housekeeping crew.

This year, The Beachmere Inn is going into the summer shorthanded because federal agencies have temporarily stopped processing for H-2B temporary guest workers.

"It's hard when we don't have enough people," said Grace Jerauld, who has worked The Beachmere's front desk for 15 years. "It's hard on the housekeeping department, so they're working six days instead of five and they're stretched thin, doing the job of one and a half people -- a physically demanding job."

As Congress considers sweeping changes to the nation's immigration laws, Diment and others in the hospitality industry are urging members of Congress to provide more certainty to businesses that use the guest worker visa program.

"H-2B workers are essential to our operation and they are seen by our employees as critical backup they need during the summer and fall months," Diment told members of a congressional subcommittee Wednesday.

The program is tightly regulated -- although not as tightly as some would like. Businesses must actively seek American workers first, pay substantial fees or travel costs to bring in foreign workers, and pay those workers a "prevailing wage" based on the regional average for that job.

Would-be workers, meanwhile, must be interviewed at a U.S. embassy or consulate.

Debate on Capitol Hill over guest workers has been muted compared to the controversy over creating a "pathway to citizenship" for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. But industries that hire temporary foreign workers to harvest crops, clean hotel rooms or do other tough-to-fill jobs are stepping up their lobbying in hopes of expanding or streamlining the programs.

The H-2B program has its critics at a time when millions of American workers are still unemployed and the country continues to dig out of the recession.

William Spriggs, chief economist for the AFL-CIO, called Diment and the other business representatives present on Wednesday "model employers." But he said the federal government needs clearer, more stringently enforced rules to prevent dishonest employers from hiring foreign workers for entry-level jobs that could be filled by unemployed Americans.

"We know there are many violations of the program where the program has been abused," Spriggs said. "And the regulations need to reflect those who misuse the program."

About 60 employers in Maine, ranging from hotels to wreath-making companies, notified the Maine Department of Labor that they plan to seek 1,085 H-2B visas for temporary foreign workers in 2013.

While the department is required to verify that those jobs are duly advertised for U.S. workers, the state isn't told by the federal government how many of those visas are ultimately used.

Requests for hospitality-related H-2B visas are most common in coastal towns such as Old Orchard Beach, Ogunquit, Boothbay, Camden and Bar Harbor.

Merlene Warren, a resident of Montego Bay, Jamaica, landed a visa to work in Ogunquit. She is one of The Meadowmere Resort's 12 to 14 seasonal employees from Jamaica, cleaning rooms during the summer.

Warren said she does the work "to care for my family back home, for my children."

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