Maine businesses face short staffing for the season.
Four years ago, the general manager of two hotels and a restaurant in Freeport began his days making beds in the morning and finished them by washing dishes. By the end of the year, he was so weary he nearly quit. Many of his managers did.

The intervening years brought relief in the form of foreign workers.

But Sean Riley, who now is in charge of three hotels and two restaurants, says he is again facing a staff shortage. The 10 Jamaicans who planned to return this year to work for him have not recieved their visas.

Maine’s summer tourism industry could be hard hit if Washington lawmakers fail to lift a cap on the number of visas issued to foreign workers, industry officials said.

“It is a very, very serious situation,” said Richard Grotton, president of the Maine Restaurant Association.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has enforced this year the 66,000 statutory limit on so-called H2-B visas issued to seasonal workers from foreign countries to perform low-skill or unskilled jobs. That typically includes such jobs as chambermaid and kitchen help.

The cap was reached in early March. Since then, no new visas have been granted. Last year, the agency allowed 78,955 visas, exceeding the cap.

That leaves most of Maine’s hospitality employers who rely on those workers each year stranded without full staff for the coming summer, Grotton said. Some may have to limit their accommodations. Some may not be able to open.

If Maine loses just 1 percent of its $13.9 billion tourism economy, that translates to $5.5 million in sales taxes and $35 million in payroll that will go unspent, Grotton said.

Last year, nearly 3,000 of the visas went to workers in the Maine hospitality industry. This year, Grotton guesses “very few” were issued prior to the freeze, despite an even greater demand than last year.

“If there’s a dozen … I’d be surprised,” said Vaughn LeBlanc, foreign labor specialist at the Maine Department of Labor.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that the federal agency’s year of issuance runs from October to September, giving winter and spring seasonal workers a jump on the summer competition, LeBlanc said. Employers must wait until 120 days before the workers’ start date before applying for visas for their foreign hires.

Before turning to help outside the country, employers must first advertise the jobs at home. The queries are then funneled through LeBlanc’s office to verify that no domestic worker can be found for the job, he said.

In Washington, efforts to lift the cap or redefine the restrictions have run into roadblocks.

Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins signed onto an April 6 letter to President Bush urging him to order the federal immigration service to continue processing H2-B visa applications.

The cap, put in place seven years ago, has not been raised, despite a greater than four-fold increase in the demand for those visas.

Earlier this week, one of two Senate bills addressing the issue failed by two votes. It would have allowed an unlimited number of returning visa holders into the country, along with 66,000 new visas. Proponents hope to hammer out a compromise measure.

But with the Senate in recess, no action on that bill is likely until later this month when the Senate reconvenes.

Riley hopes they are successful.

“The good news was I’m not very good at flipping omelets anymore,” he said. “The bad news is, I might have to get better.”

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