In resort towns across America, this summer will be no picnic.
As teens shun seasonal work--and immigrants who've largely picked up the slack in recent years face increased hurdles getting U.S. work visas--many businesses owners within these communities are scrambling to find staff. To avoid having to leave shops shuttered during their busiest time of the year, some are dropping their standards for whom to hire. Others are tapping more creative avenues for finding workers.
"We're throwing as much jello against the wall as we can to see what sticks," says Heather Hardinger, who heads up the economic development office in Branson, Missouri, a small town in the Ozarks that gets a massive influx of tourists each summer.
Why all the fuss?
Many businesses in towns whose economies are bolstered by tourism rely on an immigration program called the H-2B visa. Run by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services since 1952, the H-2B allows U.S. employers who say they struggle to find qualified, American talent to bring on temporary foreign labor for roughly three months. The program, similar to the tech industry's coveted H-1B visa system, is capped at 66,000 visas, including 33,000 for the winter months and 33,000 for the summer. A landscaper, for instance, might bring on a handful of people to mow lawns May through August, and a separate grouping to operate snow blowers from December through February.
The Trump administration has made moves to expand the H-2B visa. The recently passed omnibus spending bill, for instance, nearly doubles the number of H-2B visas available for entrepreneurs, to 129,574. However, that effort, coupled with other reforms, has largely left entrepreneurs feeling whipsawed and confused.
The Department of Labor prevents H-2B workers from extending their existing visas.
Rather, they must apply for a new one. Meanwhile, a recently introduced lottery system for doling out the visas--rather than minting them as first come, first served--has caused dozens of businesses to lose out on workers they've grown accustomed to hiring each year, irrespective of when they filed.
"The randomness really took everyone by surprise," says Susan Cohen, a Boston-based immigration attorney with the law firm Mintz Levin, who says she's been getting significantly more business this year from clients looking to secure H-2B visas in the run-up to summer. "I know that a lot of these companies feel that the policies are penalizing small businesses," she adds. (Cohen also represents Mansueto Ventures, Inc.'s parent company.)
Naturally, business owners aren't just sitting around waiting for Congress to figure this out. Among other creative workarounds, hiring seasonal employees from U.S. territories, rather than abroad, is gaining steam.
"We're spending a ton of money investing in Puerto Rico," says Bryson Allen, the director of HR at Big Cedar Lodge, a high-end resort based in Branson, Missouri. Specifically, Bryson says the company has absorbed the cost of flying recruiters out to Puerto Rico and marketing jobs there. The company, which is owned by the billionaire sports retail mogul Johnny Morris, employs around 1,200 people at its affiliated properties across the Midwest, many of whom hail from countries as diverse as Mexico, Jamaica, and Guatemala.
Big Cedar is hardly the only employer tapping this talent pool. "When it looked like President Trump was going to be cutting back the program [last year,] we started recruiting from Puerto Rico," says Branson Mayor Karen Best, who notes Puerto Rican workers do not need to procure an immigrant visa to work in Branson--or anywhere else in the U.S., for that matter. She adds the local hospital has recruited several Puerto Rican nurses. Several golf courses, restaurants, and other lakefront attractions have also tapped this talent pool.
Branson, for its part, has, within the past year, instituted programs aimed at helping make hiring these workers easier. The town sponsored a Hispanics 101 class for business leaders, including Spanish lessons and merengue classes.
While these measures have been helpful, employers say they'd prefer to simply go back to the old H-2B visa system. "We've been relying on the H-2B for over a decade," says Big Cedar's Allen. Without it, he adds: "we would not have the workers to be able to open every business in town. And if businesses don't open, they're not making money, and they would probably have to relocate."