Businesses in Maine that operate in the summer tourism industry have a problem: Not enough visas available to hire their summer staffs. So, horror of horrors, they are having to (gasp!) do things like increase salary, and changing schedules to attract local talent.

Makes me want to cry in the corner or something. Poor businesses.

Okay, enough with the melodrama. It is tough for businesses that have relied on cheap foreign labor to suddenly have to pay market rates for local employees. The Bangor Daily News wrote, back in April:

Businesses in Maine that rely on summer help are hoping that Congress will come to the rescue.

Because of new limits on the seasonal worker visa program, restaurants, hotels and other tourist-centered operations are scrambling to find seasonal employees. Until Congress opens the door to more H-2B foreign workers, those businesses are finding ways to attract locals onto the payroll.

They begged Congress and got what they wanted: more visas. The Department of Homeland Security just approved 15,000 new visas for low wage seasonal workers.Was this the real solution or should Maine and other states with high summer tourism employment needs have been forced to keep raising wages and benefits until they found US Citizens and Permanent Residents to fill the jobs?

First, what is an H-2B worker? Inc. readers are probably familiar with H-1B foreign workers, which are for educated and specialty employees. H-2B visas are temporary work visas for non-specialized skills. Like the H-1B visa, the work permit is tied to the employer, not the employee. And that's why they suppress wages.

The problem is if you come on one of these visas, and your boss underpays or turns out to be a jerk, you can't quit and move on. You're stuck with that job. So, if you come from a country with low wages and are thrilled with $10 an hour, when you arrive and find out that the going rate is $15 an hour, you can't leave your current job without losing your visa. And without that visa, you can't legally work.

It's the same problem in tech. H-1B visa holders are tied to a specific company, so the free market can't work. If you can't leave, your boss can pay you less and treat you poorly. They know you want to stay in the country, so your choices are to suck it up or suck it up.

Now, granted, Maine has a very low unemployment rate--3.2 percent as of May 2017. It seems obvious that if the unemployment rate is that low, you will need to look outside. But, that's the overall unemployment rate. Maine, like all other states, has a much higher "youth" unemployment rate, around 8 or 9 percent. (I couldn't find 2017 figures, so it is possible that it is much lower now, as this is from 2016, but overall US rates for youth is around 8 percent.)

The youth unemployment rate is defined as people ages 16-24 who are actively looking for work. It doesn't mean that all 91-92 percent of teens are employed, it means that of those who looked for work, 8-9 percent haven't found it yet. H-2B visas are for unskilled, low paying, seasonal jobs. In other words, the perfect teen job.

Why go through the trouble of getting foreign work visas instead of hiring local teens and young adults? Well, we can complain against this new, lazy generation, but old people always complain about youngsters. And, the difference is, if you hire an American unskilled 22 year-old who thinks you're mean and underpaying, she can move on. If you hire an unskilled 22 year-old on an H-2B visa who thinks you're mean and underpaying, she's stuck.

I'd like to see work visa reforms in all areas to protect foreign workers and local wages. Allowing people on H-1B or H-2B to change jobs would be a start. Companies wouldn't like this because why should they go through the extra hassles to hire non-residents if they aren't guaranteed an employee? That's the point. No one should be guaranteed a worker. They would have to offer fair wages as well if they want to keep their employees. Foreign workers should enjoy the same protections as US Citizens and Permanent Residents while they are working.

Published on: Jul 19, 2017