It may prove tougher than usual to hire the seasonal workers from foreign lands who often wind up filling temporary jobs in the restaurants and hotels that cater to tourists from Miami to Maine.

Because of a dearth of available visas, the hospitality industry is having a hard time bringing in the extra immigrants it needs to operate at full tilt.

For Maine businesses that rely on tourism, failing to fill needed positions could impact “the future growth of the hospitality industry in Maine,” said Steve Hewins, president and chief executive officer of the Maine Innkeepers Association and the Maine Restaurant Association.

Despite efforts by Maine’s congressional delegation to increase the number of foreign workers allowed into the country, the federal bureaucracy is apparently approaching the issue with far less haste than lawmakers desire.

“Delays in processing times” within the Homeland Security and Labor departments “have caused a great deal of frustration and uncertainty among seasonal businesses,” said a May 12 letter signed by 87 members of Congress, including the four from Maine.

The legislators encouraged the departments “to make efforts to allow for efficient processing for additional applications” and to streamline the process to help employers get their employees sooner.

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What’s making the issue especially hard this year is that in the past, returning seasonal workers did not count toward the overall cap of 66,000 workers under the H-2B visa program. That provision expired last fall and hasn’t been renewed.

To lend a hand, Congress included a provision in the budget bill passed recently to keep the government open that authorized additional workers in the program. It did not, however, provide a deadline for government agencies to process the paperwork.

With Memorial Day fast approaching, Maine hospitality business owners are worried they won’t get relief in time.

“As I talk with restaurant and hotel professionals across the state, the top concern they express is not having available workers to fill positions at all employment levels,” Hewins said.

For many labor organizations and groups that want to limit immigration, the answer is obvious: hire Americans to do the work.

The AFL-CIO says the evidence shows the visa program “displaces U.S. workers, lowers wages, and exposes foreign workers to exploitation.”

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It said that because the program ties a worker’s visa status to a single employer, it “greatly reduces the likelihood that workers will leave an abusive employer or complain about unpaid wages or poor working conditions” and creates “downward pressure on wages and standards” for American workers.

The state’s hospitality industry, however, is facing its busiest season and a low unemployment rate. Maine’s unemployment rate for March, the most recent for which records are available, was 3 percent, its lowest level ever.

Even adding in discouraged and marginal workers who aren’t usually counted in the rate, 91.5 percent of the state’s adult workforce is already fully employed, federal labor statistics show.

The provision approved by Congress to extend the visa program is vague about how it will work.

It tells the secretaries of Labor and Homeland Security to provide additional visas after determining “that the needs of American businesses cannot be satisfied in fiscal year 2017 with United States workers who are willing, qualified and able to perform temporary nonagricultural labor.”

It doesn’t specify how the departments should go about making that determination or provide a time limit for the work.

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Even so, the 87 senators who recently wrote to the two secretaries said, “We encourage you to take swift and decisive action to ensure that small and seasonal businesses in our states can get the workers necessary to ensure a successful season.”

“Because seasonal businesses make the majority of their revenue during a short time period during the year, it is imperative these businesses are able to operate at full capacity in order to maximize their earnings,” the letter said.

The letter was largely the work of four lawmakers whose districts rely heavily on summer tourism: Maine U.S. Sen. Angus King and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and U.S. Reps. Andy Harris, R-Md., and Bill Keating, D-Mass.

Also signing on were two Maine Republicans, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from the 1st District.


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