Visa restrictions put strain on businesses that rely on foreign workers

  • In this photo taken Thursday, June 6, 2013 in Laconia, N.H. venders set up at Weirs Beach getting ready for the thousands of motorcyclists who will visit the area for "Bike Week" starting this weekend. The 90th year of the annual event has mellowed from the riots, raunch and public drinking of decades past to a family affair. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

The Laconia Daily Sun
Published: 3/3/2021 6:56:54 PM

Midway during last year’s peak summer tourist season Larry Litchfield shut down the kitchen at Sawyer’s Dairy Bar in Gilford after most of his workers quit.

At the Naswa Resort in Weirs Beach, Cynthia Makris was unable to offer the full range of guest amenities because she could not hire enough help.

It’s a situation they hope they won’t have to grapple with again this year. The opening of the summer tourist season is just three months away, and they are keeping their fingers crossed.

Sawyer’s and the Naswa are among the area hospitality businesses which rely on foreign workers to work as cooks, servers, or housekeepers.

Just weeks after the COVID outbreak last March the Trump administration suspended two visa programs that were a critical source of seasonal workers.

The administration said the freeze was necessary to help U.S. citizens find work during a time when many Americans had lost their jobs due to the coronavirus outbreak. That left lots of businesses suddenly in the lurch, because they rely on foreign workers to fill jobs American often don’t want, they say.

“We’re always advertising for help,” said Makris who noted that recent postings on the resort’s website for two full-time positions elicited no response.

A job to handle reservation inquiries and bookings is being filled by someone from Puerto Rico.

Makris said it takes between 130 to 144 workers to fully staff the Naswa during its five-months of operation. Last year the resort was only able to hire between 70 and 75 workers.

As a result, the Blue Bistro, the Naswa’s indoor restaurant, did not open last year, and the popular beachfront NazBar operated on a reduced schedule.

“It was devastating to operate the business,” Makris said of last year.

The Naswa, like many hospitality businesses, relies on two visa programs. One – the H2B visa program – provides temporary non-farm help for up to six months for businesses where there are not enough U.S. workers who are willing and able to fill the need. The second, the J1 program, is a student cultural exchange visa that allows students to be employed full-time during school vacations and official university breaks for a maximum of 60 days.

No more than 33,000 workers are presently allowed into the U.S. under the H2B program unless Congress authorizes a higher number.

“We need Congress to increase the cap as they have done in past years,” Makris said.

“I’m hoping the J1 program will get some attention” in Washington, Karmen Gifford, president of the Greater Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce said. Those workers have typically filled positions at catering and landscaping businesses, and at restaurants.

The Trump administration extended its most recent freeze on the J1 program last December. That executive order is due to expire at the end of the month unless it is extended by the Biden administration.

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