Cape employers look to puerto rico for seasonal staff – the boston globe electricity storage association


Tighter restrictions on H-2B visas, and a growing demand for workers, are a big part of the problem. The annual visa cap is limited to 66,000 workers nationally, divided equally between the summer and winter seasons. Previously, Congress had approved exemptions that removed returning foreign workers from the cap, but for the past two seasons, thousands of workers whom employers relied on year after year — on the Cape, many are from Jamaica —have been counted as part of the 66,000.

For the summer season, the US Department of Labor received applications for more than 81,000 positions on Jan. 1, the first day requests could be submitted for the 33,000 slots — three times the number received on that day the year before. To deal with the surge, Citizenship and Immigration Services, which processes the certified requests, instituted a random lottery instead of the usual first-come, first-served system, and many Cape businesses were shut out entirely.

Business owners are required to advertise jobs locally before they apply for H-2B workers, and they would happily hire Americans if they could, they say. But few US residents have an interest in making beds and flipping burgers. Despite the need, many politicians have been reluctant to advocate for lifting the cap, and with President Trump in office, the “Hire American” sentiment has grown even stronger.

“Nobody wants to touch this issue because it looks anti-American,” said Mac Hay, owner of Mac’s Seafood, which operates three restaurants and three fish markets on the Outer Cape. “It’s so frustrating that this has become an immigration issue, and it’s not. It’s a small business issue.”

Hay, who this year only got 25 of the 70 H-2B visas he applied for, traveled to Puerto Rico with other local business owners in late January in hopes of hiring up to a dozen workers, but came back with just a cook and a dishwasher. The labor crunch is causing Hay, after 23 years, to rethink his business plan, including expanding into less isolated locations on the Cape where there are more available workers and year-round opportunities.

Mac Hay (left), owner of Mac’s Seafood, which operates three restaurants and three fish markets on Cape Cod, works with with one of his many H-2B visa employees, Robert Campbell, of Jamaica, at Mac’s Seafood Market in Wellfleet in September 2017.

Many people have already left to seek employment in the United States, a Labor Department official said, including those hired by a steady stream of US companies that have been recruiting workers since the hurricane hit. Some have been sent to work at sister resorts; others might live outside San Juan or not have Internet service and therefore don’t hear about job fairs or other employment opportunities.

Puerto Ricans who sought refuge in Massachusetts following the hurricane — the state has provided services to more than 7,700 evacuees, according to the Baker administration — haven’t been a big source of seasonal workers on the Cape, either. Many are mothers who need child care in order to work, said Sharon Martin of the Greater New Bedford Career Center, which has placed about 40 Puerto Rican evacuees and has 50 more in need of work. Language is also a barrier. The evacuees also don’t want to relocate again, especially for a seasonal job, or would need transportation there and back, she said. Plus, there are many nearby employers looking to hire workers. “It’s a competitive market,” she said.

Peter Hall, owner of Catch of the Day and Van Rensselaer’s Restaurant & Raw Bar in Wellfleet, attended the job fair in Puerto Rico with Hay and other Cape employers in January. Hall got none of the seven H-2B workers he applied for this year and said he is in “panic mode” trying to find four cooks.

But after spending roughly $2,500 on job fair ads, recruiting fees, and his airfare and hotel, Hall only ended up with one dishwasher from Puerto Rico. He is making phone calls to friends around the country in the hospitality business, but they are also short-staffed. Meanwhile, he has cut back the schedule to give his already overworked staff some time off, closing on Mondays and only serving breakfast on the weekends for now.