The Department of Homeland Security is poised to release up to 30,000 additional visas for foreign seasonal workers to fill vacant jobs across the country, including many in Maine’s thriving summer tourism industry.

Visa-holders can only work in non-agricultural positions, and typically take relatively low-paying jobs in hotels, restaurants, landscaping companies and seafood processing businesses.

But demand for the program has surged in recent years amid a low unemployment rate, now 4 percent in Maine, and regularly outpaces an annual nationwide limit of 66,000 visas, divided evenly between the two halves of the year.

When the federal Department of Labor started accepting applications to certify visa-qualifying positions at midnight on Jan. 1, so many people tried logging on that it crashed the system.

Nationally, employers have filed paperwork for 96,400 workers, almost three times the 33,000 visas available for this summer.

“It is better than no relief, but it is frustrating,” said Marcus Jaynes, an attorney from Landis, Arn and Jaynes, an immigration law firm in Portland.

Under pressure from lawmakers and businesses, the Department of Homeland Security released 15,000 visas in each of the last two years.

Although there are no final rules, under the Department of Homeland Security proposal only workers involved with the H-2B program in the last three years would be eligible to receive one of the additional visas.

“It is still messy,” Jaynes said. “This is certainly not the ideal news we could get, but it is better than 15,000 visas.”

Doubling the number of additional visas will make a huge difference for Maine’s hospitality industry, which has struggled to find enough local workers to keep up normal business, said Greg Dugal, director of government affairs at Hospitality Maine, a trade group representing restaurants and hotels.

“This is going to have a significant positive impact,” Dugal said. “It isn’t ideal, but boy, is it a lot more than I thought we were going to get.”

So far in the 2018-2019 fiscal year, 126 Maine businesses have applied for H-2B workers to fill 2,280 positions, compared to 131 employers requesting about 2,500 positions last year, according to Maine Department of Labor records.

That seems like a low number considering nearly 86,000 people work in Maine’s summer hospitality industry, but those positions are critical for operations at some hotels and restaurants.

The Meadowmere Resort in Ogunquit considered shuttering its restaurant for the upcoming season because it was unable to get visas for six cooks it needed, said director of sales and marketing Allyson Cavaretta.

“We were desperately searching for people,” Cavaretta said. “If we had no one we would not be able to open our seasonal restaurant and really function.”

She hopes the additional visas will allow the resort to hire enough workers in time, but the dire straits her resort found itself in is repeated all over Ogunquit, a beach town with a year-round population of about 900 that draws tens of thousands of tourists every year.

“Some people, they have no one, they are in the same position,” Cavaretta said. “They aren’t finding anybody, that is kind of terrifying if you are a restaurant.”

Before employers can hire H-2B visa holders, they are required to advertise jobs and prove that no Americans will take them. They also are supposed to pay a federally mandated competitive wage.

In a joint statement, Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins said the new visas would help Maine hotels and restaurants that otherwise would have been unable to open or been forced to curtail operations.

“Although the release of these additional visas is an encouraging step and will provide relief to many Maine small businesses, the limited number available does not meet the overwhelming need given the current tight labor market and record low unemployment,” the senators said. King is an independent and Collins is a Republican.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, in her announcement to lawmakers, said that Congress is in a position to know the “right” number of visas that should be allocated to U.S. businesses.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, acknowledged lawmakers’ role in a statement.

“While I’m pleased that DHS has made this announcement earlier than previous years, and provided more visas, it is disappointing that it is not sufficient to meet businesses’ needs,” Pingree said. “I welcome that DHS Secretary Nielsen has asked Congress for a statutory fix and I will work with my colleagues toward that goal.”

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

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