Moves are afoot to use the economic stimulus package being planned by President Bush and Congress to deal with the national economic crisis, to also resolve an immigration problem which threatens to leave Island businesses without their usual supply of foreign seasonal workers.
Cong. William Delahunt is pushing the proposal to restore immigration provisions of the H2B visa scheme, which have expired as a result of the Congressional gridlock over immigration law.
The immigration provisions, applying to overseas workers returning to seasonal jobs they had held in previous years, expired last October. Without them, employers all over the Island face crippling staff shortages.
One such employer, Joe Badot, general manager of the Harborside Inn in Edgartown, said he was at risk of losing three quarters of his summer staff as a result.
“We have 25 returning H2B people, 21 from Jamaica and four from Bulgaria, who’ve been with us anywhere from three to 10 years, and we are unable to get any H2B approvals,” he said, adding:
“We’re trying to set a deadline for ourselves when it will be drop dead time and we’ll have to try to make alternate plans.
“I guess it couldn’t be much past Feb. 15, at the very latest. We open the middle of April. That would give us 60 days. Just the selection process takes time, and then there is quite a bit of training involved.
“But we’ve had these people so long, we hate to make commitments elsewhere if there is still an opportunity to get them back here. And we are concerned that they have financial obligations, mortgages, sending kids to school.”
He said among the options being considered if the hotel could not get its regular staff were recruiting workers from Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin islands, where the people had citizenship, or from hotel schools or elsewhere in the country.
“Certainly we would like to get people from the Island first, but we certainly haven’t been successful in the past,” Mr. Badot said.
“We felt we had exhausted all these things and the Department of Labor agreed with us and said ‘yeah, you need these people,’ but now immigration can’t give us the visas.”
The H2B system was devised to fill labor shortages in seasonal areas. It is intended to supplement, not replace local workers.
Those employed under the visas must be paid the same wages as local workers, and employers must first advertise the positions to prove they cannot fill the jobs locally.
It takes about three months for the employer to prove their need to the labor department. Only then may they apply to the Immigration Service, which has an annual cap of 66,000 H2B visas, half starting on Oct. 1, half April 1.
Employers cannot start the process more than 120 days before their need, so if May 1, for example, is first day of seasonal need, they cannot start the process until January.
But this year the federal government notified businesses the cap had been reached on Jan. 2.
In previous years, an exemption applied to returning workers and many employers came to rely on them, both because they were exempt and because they had already been trained and had proven work records.
But the exemption fell victim to Congress’s inability to reach agreement on comprehensive immigration reform last year.
“This is a very serious political impasse. There’s no question people are scrambling to get a plan B in place,” said Mark Forrest, a longtime aide to Representative Delahunt.
“The Hispanic Caucus [21 Democratic members of Hispanic descent] has said the only reforms they will support are those that are comprehensive. Individual initiatives, legislation that re-authorizes an existing program, they will hold up,” he said.
So with the immigration bill stalled, they have begun looking at other legislative vehicles to get the workers in and provide relief for employers.
“The Congress came back last week and one of the first orders of business was to work on a stimulus. The argument Delahunt and others concerned about this issue are making is that if we are intent on stimulating the economy, this is a measure that would certainly fit with that goal,” Mr. Forrest said.
“We had 25 members either there or represented at a meeting yesterday. Our hope is to build a coalition of legislators that are concerned about this so we can make the case.”
“A likely next move would be a letter to President Bush and party leaders advocating the measure.
“That’s the next move on our part,” Mr. Forrest said, “but our members are looking at almost any vehicle.
“We also met with immigration to see if there might be some administrative remedy we might have overlooked. And there is some suggestion the labor department could loosen the 120-day rule.
“We looking at every angle we can, every option.
“But the real fate of this rests in the hands of the Hispanic caucus. If they were to change their position, it could be put on the floor almost immediately.”
Meanwhile, employers are doing whatever they can individually to lobby.
Said Mr. Badot: “We have been putting a lot of lobbying time into our representatives, because it’s very important to us and to the Vineyard and to all of New England basically.
“Apart from all the employers who directly apply to bring in these workers, it affects other businesses. Many of them work second jobs for other people.”
Mr. Badot said he was surprised and dismayed at the inactivity of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce over the issue.
“But the Cape Cod chamber is very active, and I’ve joined forces with a couple of people on the Cape who bring in big numbers of workers. I’ve even asked some of my vendors to use their resources in Washington, if they have them, to put some pressure on.”
In the longer run, he said, employers would have to reconsider their labor hiring practices, so they would be less affected by capricious acts of Congress.
“Even though we’re closed all winter, we would look at developing some year-round positions, to attract some good people and keep them,” he said.
“I think this is going to change the way all of us think about seasonal labor.”