2017-07-27 / News

New H-2B Visas Approved, Bittersweet for Mackinac Island Businesses

By Cathryn Lien
Mackinac Island Town Crier

Another 15,000 seasonal visas have been approved to supplement the number of temporary workers filling H-2B nonagricultural jobs for the remainder of this fiscal year.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials said the increase is meant to relieve pressure on some U.S. businesses that are facing extreme labor shortages.

On Mackinac Island, where the worker pinch has been felt this summer, the seasonal visa increase is good news, especially if it means the federal government also will permit the additional visas next year, but it comes so late this year that it may not be very helpful, according to a business and city official interviewed Wednesday, July 19, by the Town Crier.

Mackinac Island Carriage Tours Treasurer Brad Chambers said he solved the temporary problem of a long-time farrier, caught in changed federal policy that made the worker shortage more acute this summer, by using a concurrent employment option permitted under the program: the Canadian farrier had been approved for an H-2B visa with another U.S. employer. The worker, who lives just 50 miles from the Island, initially had been denied a visa to work for Carriage Tours despite having worked there for 22 seasons.

Mr. Chambers said he’s glad the government decided to extend the cap and is encouraged that it could mean more foreign workers will be available going into 2018. Carriage Tours is working with immigration attorneys to determine how much time it will take to bring in foreign employees.

Anneke Myers, who is the personnel director for the Balsam Shop, Loon Feather, and Little Acorn, said the government’s H-2B visa cap increase, unfortunately, comes late in the season, which winds down by October.

“Businesses will proceed with filing for H-2B visas, but at this point in the season, it’s not cost-effective,” Mrs. Myers said, referring to the expenses and arrangements for bringing foreign employees into the U.S., such as the visa filing fee, transportation costs, passport fees, and the time it takes to get them here.

“We’ll be lucky if we see new H- 2B visa employees by Labor Day,” she said.

College students have filled some of the vacant positions created by the tighter H-2B visa allotment for this year. It resulted from a decision, announced in December, that repeat immigrant workers would this year be counted against the H-2B visa limit, whereas that had not been the case in the past.

Mrs. Myers, who also serves on the Mackinac Island City Council, predicted Island businesses will make the best use they can of the additional visa allotment because they have little choice but to do so. She said some of those businesses may close their doors early, owing to the worker shortage.

According to senior officials at Homeland Security, the release of additional H-2B visas fits President Donald Trump’s promise to put American workers first, as U.S. businesses with employee shortages run the risk of financial ruin without additional H-2B workers.

H-2B visas are used to hire foreign workers when domestic workers cannot be found. These visas can only be granted after employers have exhausted every option in recruiting domestically. The visa holders, whose immigration status is dependent on their employment, are legally employed for four to 10 months.

This category of visas has an annual quota of 66,000. In December, the U.S. Congress decided not to renew a provision that allowed previous visa holders automatically to work in the current year, effectively downsizing the number of visas by 50 percent. The reason for the decision was directly related to concern in Congress about the H- 2B’s impact on American workers.

The decision quickly caused problems, on Mackinac Island and for other U.S. tourist destinations. From May to October, Mackinac Island relies on about 3,000 seasonal employees to staff its tourism-related businesses. Onethird of those seasonal employees are from other countries, mostly Jamaica, Mexico, the Philippines, and Canada.

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