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N.H. seasonal firms scramble as temporary-worker visa program remains up in the air



Monitor staff
Friday, April 13, 2018

You don’t have to tell Joanne Miller of Webster about the arcane legal intricacies of the fight over the nation’s H-2B visa program – a fight that drew in Gov. Chris Sununu on Thursday – because it’s crippling her family’s livelihood.

“We have been in business almost 30 years and we have had a very difficult last couple of years,” said Miller, who operates Miller Amusements, a traveling carnival company, with her husband, Scott. “We had to cancel jobs last year, especially right out the gate. We had to borrow help from some of the other people we know in the business, had to leave rides down because we can’t cover them.”

Miller says the company almost folded a decade ago because it couldn’t find enough people to who wanted to work the odd and grueling hours of a carny – often seven days a week for 26 weeks, traveling from town to town. It was saved by the H-2B program, which provides temporary visas for seasonal workers, mostly for non-agricultural jobs; Miller Amusements filled about a dozen of the 16 full-time positions through the program.

Last year, the program was curtailed under changes made by the Trump administration, and Miller Amusements received no workers via H-2B visas. The program’s status is unclear right now; on Thursday, Gov. Sununu sent a letter to the U.S. secretaries of Labor and of Homeland Security, urging them to approve petitions from New Hampshire businesses seeking to hire people through the visas.

“Granite State companies ... have felt their concern for their employees and businesses have been ignored,” Sununu wrote, saying that labor shortages are forcing New Hampshire businesses to “turn away contracts and agreements totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.”

The budget deal passed by Congress in March gives the two secretaries the authority to raise the current H-2B visa cap of 66,000 to approximately 100,000.

Competition for the slots is fierce. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said in March that in one week the agency had received requests nationwide seeking 14,000 more workers than the number of visas allotted for the period.

“It’s not just us. Landscapers, hotels, restaurants – all going through the same thing,” Miller said.

Karmen Gifford, president of the Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, agreed that seasonal firms are scrambling as the start of the season approaches and they wait to hear whether their visa applications will be honored.

Because the program was tightened by the U.S. Department of Labor, which requires that firms “aggressively recruit” U.S. workers and pay the prevailing wage in the region for the job, and because employers must provide some housing for visa workers, Gifford said it is often cheaper for businesses to hire locals than to bring in people from overseas.

“If they could hire locally, they would,” Gifford said. “But we don’t have the applications. We’re doing a job fair May 10, and we’ll have 30 employers at the Belknap Mall. But I know there are more jobs available than there are job seekers.”

For 11 years, Miller Amusements has hired workers from around Veracruz on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, found through a company called JKJ Workforce.

Of the company’s roughly 16 full-time people, she says, about a dozen came through the program. They provide housing in rolling bunkhouses that follow the show from town to town.

“We had the same boys and girls for 11 years, the same kids, all have families, They’re wonderful kids,” Miller said.

Last year, however, the company never got access to the visas, although in theory they should have been released by the U.S. Department of Labor, she said.

They were able to hire four full-time workers locally, with more part-timers on weekends, and the family scrambled to fill as much of the rest as they could, but weren’t entirely successful. If that happens again this year, Miller said, the family might rethink the business.

Miller said she understands concern about immigration policy, but added: “I feel the illegal end of things has really hurt the legal end of things.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)