PROVINCETOWN — With the Cape’s high season just a few months away, Lobster Pot owner and chef Tim McNulty is already worried about having enough workers to serve the thousands of summer visitors to his restaurant.
In December, Congress ended an exemption for returning foreign workers who come to the Cape through the H-2B visa program.
That means thousands of workers — and their employers — have to deal with more than just the usual slow application process. Now all H-2B workers must apply to the federal government — even those who’ve already gone through the process — with no exceptions.
Business owners who rely on seasonal workers, like McNulty, are panicking.
“It’s going to be horrible,” said McNulty, who typically hires 35 to 50 H-2B workers for his restaurant. “This is a disaster.”
Last summer employers from Barnstable, Dukes and Nantucket counties made 301 requests to bring in about 3,101 employees from foreign countries, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The U.S. Department of State, which keeps the records nationally, could not provide the actual number of visas issued by county.
The exemption allowed returning foreign workers coming to the country to wash dishes, landscape, cook and clean hotel rooms, and bypass the cap on such visas.
Employers say the cap of 66,000 a year is way too low to meet the demand. The exemption allowed some relief from the cap.
“This is an enormously big deal,” said Jane “Mama Visa” Nichols Bishop, owner of Peak Season Workforce, of Mashpee.
The national cap is divided evenly between the winter and summer seasons. Competition for the 33,000 visas available in summer has become a seasonally recurring nightmare for Cape and island business owners, Bishop said.
“We live our life every year with our fingers crossed,” McNulty said.
Bishop handles the H-2B applications for 180 businesses on the Cape and several other states. She said 80 to 90 percent of those clients have mostly returning workers, she said.
In 2016, McNulty caught a break with the exemption. Because of other regulation changes in 2015, the application process took so long that the Lobster Pot had to open in May instead of April. But nearly all of his 35 employees from Jamaica were returning workers, so had no fears about the cap.
“They’re like family,” he said. “I’ve literally known some of these people half my life.”
Now McNulty could be in trouble. The applications are still moving slowly through the Department of Labor and Homeland Security, so he said he is certain he’ll have to open a month late again. Typically the application process takes several months to complete, Bishop said. She filed applications on Jan. 1 for all her clients opening April 1, and the majority of them have not even made it through the first of a multi-step process yet.
“That’s ridiculous,” she said.
The lost month cost the Lobster Pot $450,000 in revenue, he said.
McNulty is also worried that if the cap is reached before his employees are approved, he may have to simplify his menu, reduce hours and otherwise shrink a business that employs about 100 people, 65 of whom are American.
“Unless we have dishwashers, how can we open a restaurant?” he said.
The H-2B program requires employers to advertise all jobs and to offer prevailing wages to foreign workers.
Dishwashers in Provincetown are offered $11.12 an hour, according to the U.S. Dept of Labor.
No U.S. citizens ever apply to be dishwashers, McNulty said.
The loss of the exemption for returning workers is just one glimpse into the H-2B employee problems here, said Mac Hay, owner of three restaurants, as well as fish markets and a hotel on the Outer Cape.
Hay said he hired 90 H-2B employees last year.
These dishwashers, dining room staff, and cooks make it possible for him grow, he said. He now employs nearly 300 people, including 50 to 60 year-round.
But like McNulty, without the help of his mostly Jamaican crew — who he provides housing for — the labor shortage will force layoffs and shrink the business.
Hay has investigated busing in workers from off-Cape. But no one is interested in such a commute, he said. Americans cannot afford to uproot their lives for a few months to relocate to the Cape. The people already living here are not enough, he said. And college students leave in August during peak season, he said.
The H-2B visa program has lacked Congressional support, Bishop said, and many believe that it takes jobs away from Americans and forces wages down.
“But we have low unemployment only during peak season,” she said. “That’s the part that Congressional folks don’t understand.”
H-2B employers thought the election of President Donald Trump would help them, Bishop said. Trump hires several H-2B workers at his businesses, including Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, which was certified for 20 housekeepers, 20 cooks, and 30 waiters for the last winter season, according to the U.S. Dept of Labor.
Trump’s administration has been silent about the H-2B program, Bishop said.
Late last year, Hay, McNulty and eight other business owners on the Outer Cape hired Public Strategies Washington, a lobbying firm, to help reform the H-2B program.
“There is so much uncertainty about immigration with this administration,” said Patrick O’Neill, a partner at PSW. “We’re just trying to methodically get in front of people.”
They formed the New England Seasonal Business Coalition as part of their strategy.
The Coalition recently created a website, and will try to get members from all over New England, O’Neill said.
Yet there are already other lobbying firms at work on this, Bishop said.
“I don’t think there is a sense of urgency on the part of the U.S. Department of Labor,” Bishop said. “I’m not convinced they realize how much the H-2B visas contribute to our economy.”