By Dan D'Ambrosio
Bob and Pennie Beach, co-owners of the Basin Harbor Club in Vergennes, hire seasonal workers though the H-2B visa program for foreign workers because they can't find enough local help. But now even that is becoming a struggle.
Vermont businesses are facing a critical shortage of seasonal workers that threatens to cripple the state's important hospitality and recreational industry, including ski resorts and luxury hotels.
The crisis can be traced to a Congressional cap of 66,000 on the number of H-2B visas made available annually to international workers who fill positions as ski lift operators, chefs, waiters and waitresses and more.
Bob Beach, co-owner of Basin Harbor in Vergennes, said the cap for 33,000 visas in the first half of the year was met by Jan. 10, leaving him scrambling to find a way to hire the 300 workers he needs during the resort's season from May to October. Beach explained there's a window of opportunity to recruit H-2B workers based on the start date.
"Because we don't really start until May, you can't ask for that staff until, say, the very end of March or April, and there's nobody left," Beach said.
Beach has long-time seasonal staff in Jamaica waiting to return to Vergennes again this year who won't be able to come because he can't get visas for them.
"Not only are we having to really search to the extreme to find those replacements, we're also having to contact those folks to say it does not look like you'll be joining us for the summer," Beach said.
Beach finds that process difficult.
"You've got people who have been working with you for 15 years," he said. "They're friends."
At Killington Resort, the state's largest ski area, President and General Manager Mike Solimano said he faces the same problem as at Basin Harbor, just in the opposite season.
"It's hard to get the international workers," Solimano said. "On the other hand nobody local wants the jobs. At times we had a hard time running the lifts because we were short of people."
Under the terms of the H-2B program, employers have to petition the U.S. Department of Labor for visas for specific jobs at specific rates of pay.
Killington goes from 300 full-time workers in the off-season to 1,800 in the winter. Solimano has tried everything he can think of to alleviate the manpower problem, from partnering with Green Mountain College in Poultney on a resort management program to funnel higher level workers into the business, to paying more for seasonal jobs — but the rate remains in the range of $11 to $13 an hour at the entry level.
"There's just not enough people around," Solimano said.
Solimano spends the winter worrying as a result.
"A lot of times in winter we clear out the administrative offices," he said. "Everybody is out doing something. We don't have people in marketing, IT and accounting who get to sit in the office. Maybe they're not running lifts, but they're working in the parking lots."
Solimano said some face time with customers is good for administrative staff.
"But we're doing it more than you would do it just for that, we're doing it as a necessity, making people not able to do their regular jobs," he said.
A widespread problem
Bob Beach is sensitive to the notion that international workers take jobs away from Vermonters. Not true, he says.
Before he can hire any H-2B staff, Beach explains, he has to first offer the jobs to Vermonters through advertisements in local newspapers, including the Burlington Free Press. Vermonters — or any U.S. citizen — have first crack at the jobs.
"We hire as many Vermont folks as we possibly can," Beach said.
Solimano said the low unemployment rate in Vermont — 3 percent in February — makes it hard to find residents who are interested in seasonal jobs, and those who are can be difficult to retain. He blames social and economic woes such as the opioid epidemic.
"In Rutland County, the couple of percent who are unemployed, it's debatable whether they're employable," Solimano said. "We hire them, we fire them, they don't show up."
Tom Torti, president and CEO of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the problem with a shortage of seasonal workers isn't new for Vermont, but now it has gotten acute.
"I don't think you could pick up a phone and call a resort, ski area or small hospitality place on the lake and find somebody who does not run into this problem," he said. "It is widespread."
Vermont is a state that is aging rapidly and not adding many new residents, Torti explained.
"Let's face it, these are young people's jobs and Vermont isn't producing a lot of young people," he said. "The young people we have, many of them don't want these kinds of jobs, so without guest workers the quality of service that people expect from Vermont, where you're pampered and treated well, we're going to lose that over time."
Vital program, or just cheap labor?
Torti believes — and others agree, like the New England Seasonal Business Coalition — that the H-2B program should be opened up to allow supply to meet demand. When 33,000 visas are snapped up in 10 days, that tells you there's more demand than supply, Torti said.
Patrick O'Neill, a partner at the Washington, D.C. consulting firm Public Strategies Washington who is working on behalf of the New England Seasonal Business Coalition, said his primary mission is to insert an exemption to the H-2B cap for returning workers as part of this year's federal spending bill.
There was an exemption in place last year that helped alleviate the shortage of workers, but it was not renewed for 2017. The exemption was for workers who had already been vetted and had substantial background checks, O'Neill said.
"There's more demand every year for these workers," he said. "We have a real crunch, not just in New England, but in all different areas around the country."
Part of the reason there was a run on H-2B visas this year was the uncertainty surrounding President Donald Trump and what he might do to the program, given his immigration rhetoric.
"We have a president who doesn't seem to understand the need for foreign workers," Torti said. "I understand immigrant workers need to go through screening and vetting, but if we want our businesses to be successful, they need adequate staff. You can't run golf courses and resorts without guest workers."
At the other end of the political spectrum, Torti said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is also unsympathetic to expanding the H-2B program. Sanders confirmed that he does not support raising the cap on H-2B visas, and questioned whether willing workers truly are unavailable in Vermont.
"We supposedly live in a supply-and-demand economy, and if employers can't find workers to fill their jobs they might want to raise wages," Sanders said. "That's how you attract workers."
Sanders added that by allowing employers to bring low-wage workers into the country, the H-2B program does away with the incentive in Vermont, and in the nation, to pay better wages.
"I believe if people are paid an adequate wage they will do the work," he said. "I find it hard to believe there are not young people in the State of Vermont who want to earn some money for college in the summer who are not fully prepared to do the work that's out there."
But Mike Solimano, president and general manager at Killington, believes the seasonal workforce crunch is symptomatic of a bigger problem in Vermont — a shortage of bodies to fill not only seasonal jobs, but also highly skilled jobs at places like GE Aviation in Rutland.
"How do you get people to move here?" he asked.