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Seasonal luxury resorts are finding themselves in a difficult position, thanks to new government restrictions on short-term visas.
While the H-2B visa process, designed for workers coming into the country for seasonal jobs, has always been a quagmire, things have become more fraught under the Trump administration.
According to Brian Crawford, executive vice president of government affairs for the American Hotel & Lodging Association, “This administration more than most is focused on immigration-related matters. But we don’t see H-2B visas as an immigration issue. We see it as small-business issue. We need workers, but it’s become a political hot potato that nobody wants to touch, especially since it’s become tethered to debate around the wall.”
Nonetheless, H2B workers have become caught up in the Trump administration’s war on immigration. In a recent salvo, the government announced in January that it was suspending workers from the Philippines and the Dominican Republic from the H-2B program, citing overstays, and in the case of the Philippines, concerns about human trafficking. This has major implications for the hospitality industry, which relies on guest workers from these countries, among others, to fill gaps in staffing.
And while the Department of Homeland Security has agreed to add 30,000 more visas to the H-2B pool, it’s still not a done deal. According to Crawford, “The White House sent the regulation over to the Office of Management and Budget on April 22, but it still hasn’t been placed in the Federal Register. Until it is published in the Federal Register, it’s not done. Practically speaking [then], those 30,000 additional visas for returning workers are still not available.”
To B or H-2B
In order to understand the conundrum, it’s important to learn about some of the basic nuts and bolts of the H-2B visa. To put it simply, it’s complicated.
The Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration administer the H-2B guest worker visa program. According to the USCIS website, the H-2B visa “allows foreign nationals to work in temporary non-agricultural jobs. These jobs must be temporary because they are seasonal…or due to a peak-load need.”
The number of H-2B visas issued is typically capped at 66,000 per fiscal year, with 33,000 issued during the first half of the fiscal year (between October 1 and March 31) and 33,000 for the second half of the fiscal year (between April 1 and September 30). These visas are distributed by lottery. Whenever the extra 30,000 visas actually do become available this year, they will be restricted to those who have previously held H-2B visa status.
Given caps, the continually fluid nature of the rules, and the snail’s pace at which the government moves, the hotel industry is finding itself in a quandary. This is especially the case for small, seasonal resorts located in remote areas like Nantucket, Massachusetts, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Alyeska, Alaska. These places, with their high staff-to-guest ratios, are dependent upon foreign workers for staffing, since many Americans, in this time of low unemployment, are loath to relocate to distant places to take short-term positions.
The competition for H-2B visas is particularly fierce for the summer season, when hospitality is competing for workers with other warm-weather industries. According to the National Immigration Forum, 40 percent of summertime H-2B visas go to the landscaping business, with forestry accounting for eight percent. Hospitality is battling with the likes of carnivals and the construction and seafood industries for the other half of the allotment.
In order to apply for H-2B visas, resorts have to prove they can’t find Americans to fill the jobs. Then they have to file paperwork with the Department of Labor. If positions are approved, resorts next have to recruit workers from overseas. After that, it’s time for more costly paperwork and finger-crossing that visas come through. All of this can take months.
Khaled Hashem, managing director of hospitality for New England Development, which operates several luxury properties on Nantucket, outlines the process. “We spend tens of thousands of dollars on advertising and recruiting in the United States, proving we can’t find Americans for the jobs,” Then, he says, more money is spent on advertising and recruiting abroad and on fees for filing paperwork.
Due to the complicated nature of the procedure, many employers turn to lawyers and recruitment firms specializing in obtaining these visas. Needless to say, that too is costly. But trying to do it yourself, according to Lisa Angotti, recruiting and housing manager for Deer Valley Resort, “is very labor-intensive on our end. Finding the right agencies to rely on makes all the difference.”
Aside from using specialized agencies, resorts are employing other strategies to ease the burdens.
“Winter resorts are able to bring workers in when there is less competition, so it’s easier for them to get workers in,” said Sally Remick, director of human resources for New England Development.
Because non-immigrant employees who are in country can change employers seasonally (if the new employer files a temporary labor certification and a Form I-129 petition), summer resorts can piggyback on already vetted H-2B holders.
Even though they don’t have as many challenges getting workers during the winter, ski resorts have an added arrow in the quiver when it comes to finding qualified staff.
According to Kathleen Newell, recruiting coordinator over strategic sourcing for Deer Valley Resort, since ski instructors often fall under the H-2B program, “we work with our Alterra and Ikon pass partners in Australia, New Zealand, and Chile” to find qualified workers.
It used to be that the seasonal resorts could just bring the same employees back year after year. During the past three years that’s become more difficult as restrictions tighten. That means resorts have to choose between spending more time and money on recruiting and training, or paring down on hiring of seasonal staff.
According to AH&LA’s Crawford, “Since there is so often no rhyme or reason to the process, including who the administration no longer deems eligible, some in our industry have thrown up their hands.”
In fact, he said, most big hotel brands have moved away from using the program. But smaller hospitality companies simply don’t have that luxury.