Merchants Forecast Employee Shortfall Due to Visa Limits

By JAMES KINSELLA

In recent years, 35 Jamaicans have made their way north at the start of each summer season to work at the Harbor View Hotel and the Kelley House in Edgartown.

"They have become like family," general manager Dick McAuliffe said of the workers, who tended to return year after year.

This summer, however, the Jamaicans are not likely to return to the Edgartown hotels - or anywhere else in the United States.

The hotels had brought them in under the federal H-2b visa program, which allows foreign workers to stay up to 10 months in the United States. But the program reached its national limit of 66,000 workers before the Edgartown hotel applications were processed.

"They have done nothing wrong," Mr. McAuliffe said of the Jamaicans. "We have done nothing wrong."

Yet the hotels have been effectively barred from bringing in these workers, who are among the 75 they hired last year through the program.

The Harbor View Hotel and the Kelley House are among the Vineyard businesses deprived this year of any access to H-2b workers.

Officials say the effective shutdown of the program will force businesses to develop alternative staffing solutions.

"We are concerned about it because we know there are potential impacts on the tourism industry," said Linnea Walsh, a spokesman for the state Departments of Labor and Workforce Development.

Since Nov. 15, a total of 21 Vineyard businesses have sought to fill 184 employee openings with people holding H-2b visas, Ms. Walsh said.

"It's a disaster," confirmed Peter Martell, who has been bringing in H-2b workers to work at the Wesley Hotel and at the Lampost, the latter of which he is in the process of selling.

Mr. Martell said he had five H-2b workers lined up for the Wesley and another 15 set for the Lampost. Now he is hoping to find replacements through the J-1 visa program, which allows college students or recent graduates from other nations to work in the United States for up to four months.

But he is holding out relatively little hope at this stage of the hiring process. "If I can get five J-1s, I'll be lucky," Mr. Martell said.

A number of federal legislators, including Cong. William Delahunt and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, are backing bills that would amend the H-2b program.

Two related bills introduced last month would leave the cap at 66,000 but would change the timing of the visa distribution so that no more than 33,000 could be awarded in the first six months of the federal fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The change would stop winter tourism businesses from absorbing available visas before summer resorts in the northern United States have a chance at them - which is what happened this year.

Mr. Martell said the smart thing would be to expand the program's national cap past 66,000 temporary immigrants.

"This should be an easy no-brainer," he said. "But there's a ‘hire American' group down there. If you can find them, I'll hire them. There aren't any."

Mr. Martell said the pool of available American workers effectively has dried up for places such as the Wesley, which is looking to hire people for positions such as chambermaids.

He said Vineyard youths, who are able to pick and choose jobs, are uninterested. Students who attend college in other states often regard the Vineyard as too expensive, he said, while older workers from places such as Boston no longer are willing to relocate seasonally.

At the Harbor View Hotel and Kelley House, Mr. McAuliffe said the hotels will try to draw more workers from sources such as hospitality colleges in the United Kingdom and the northeastern United States, ski resorts in places such as Colorado and northern New England, and Florida resorts.

But while he is confident he will be able to cover the hotels' main season, he anticipates gaps in the shoulder seasons, from mid-April to late May and again from October through early November. These are precisely the periods that the extended stay of the H-2b workers could cover.

"That's why we rely on it so much," he said of the H-2b program.