Concord Kiwanis fair canceled due to lack of visas for many seasonal businesses

  • A state inspection for a ride from Miller Amusements at the Kiwanis Fair on the grounds of the Everett Arena on Wednesday, May 16, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER

  • A worker from Miller Amusements climbs up the gondola ride as they set up for the Kiwanis Fair at Everett Arena on Wednesday May 16, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Workers from Miller Amusements set up the gondola ride as they prepare for the opening of the Kiwanis Fair at Everett Arena on Wednesday May 16, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 4/26/2019 6:26:08 PM

The Kiwanis Club of Concord will not hold its annual spring fair this year due to a labor shortage as unemployment rates drop and a foreign worker program has hit its cap.

A fixture on the city community calendar for the last 63 years, this year’s fair – scheduled for the weekend after Mother’s Day in May – has been canceled because its vendor, Miller Amusements, was not granted any workers through the federal government’s H-2B visa program because the number of available visas ran out, the company said.

These visas allow foreign workers to come to the United States to fill non-agricultural, seasonal jobs that were not taken by U.S. citizens. In recent years, the demand for foreign workers has increased as unemployment rates have dropped nationally – New Hampshire’s was 2.4% in March, a decrease of 2.6% from 2018 – and the pool of local seasonal workers has dwindled.

The program distributes 66,000 visas across the country each year, divided in half for summer and winter industries. But the number of visas available is far below the number of workers being requested by U.S. businesses.

This year, the demand for foreign workers was so massive that the Department of Labor’s electronic filing system for visas crashed on Jan. 1, the first day businesses could submit their applications. Nearly 98,000 H-2B workers were requested that day with only 33,000 visas available.

Some applications made it through the crash and were accepted while most were bounced back. The Miller’s request for 20 workers didn’t get through, and now they’re wondering how they’ll make it through the season.

“We’re just dead in the water,” said Joanne Miller, who runs Miller Amusements with her husband, Scott. “We’ve worked hard for 30 years to build a business we’re proud of. … Now, our workforce for the last 13 years is sitting in Mexico wondering when they can come to work.”

Scott Miller said this is the first time they’ve canceled an event in 30 years and stressed that all of their other events this season are still on schedule.

Concord Kiwanis Club President Mark Lester said the fair will return next year.

The departments of Labor and Homeland Security announced earlier this month that they will release an additional 30,000 H-2B visas through Sept. 30 but they have not yet become available.

The Millers are hoping they will get some of those added visas, but for now all they can do is wait.

“We don’t know if or when we’ll even get any,” Scott Miller said. “I am going to try to do everything in my power to not cancel anything else.”

Joanne Miller said they often get the same workers coming back each year who are already familiar with operating and maintaining the carnival rides. The workers, mostly men from Mexico, she said, work for the company through the spring and summer (usually about 26 weeks) while sending money back to their families before returning home themselves.

The visa program requires businesses to make a serious effort to hire Americans before seeking foreign workers. The Millers said they post job listings in all the locations where they set up their equipment but never get enough people to respond. 

This weekend, the company is working at the Vermont Maple Festival in St. Albans. Joanne Miller said they posted notices in the area for workers for the weekend, but only six responded. Of those six, three showed up for work Friday morning.

It’s just as difficult to find local people to work the whole season, Joanne Miller said.

“It’s a seasonal job, you get laid off in October,” she said. “Most people want a full-time job and there’s a lot of them right now.”

The labor shortage is an issue that many seasonal businesses in New Hampshire are confronting as the summer tourism season approaches. Last year, the shortage caused several businesses, particularly in the Lakes Region, to curtail services such as cutting back on hours of operation.

“We’ve been struggling with this for a number of years and it’s been so challenging, especially in hospitality,” said Karmen Gifford, president of the Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce.

The NASWA resort at Weirs Beach in Laconia has felt the pinch of the labor shortage in recent years. Cynthia Makris, general manager, said the resort requires about 140 total employees each year and they house more than 50 on the property. Jobs range from housekeeping and food service to dock and beach maintenance.

After 18 years of hiring H-2B employees, the resort has not received any in the last two years.

“We got shut out by the cap,” Makris said. “Last year, we had to curtail our operations. We were still open until Columbus Day, but we didn’t have enough servers or cooks, and we had to cut down on our menu and hours.”

Like the Millers, Makris is hoping the 30,000 additional visas will be released but isn’t counting on it. The NASWA is doubling down on recruiting more college students, but even the seasonal labor market there is dwindling, she said. The resort is holding a job fair on Saturday.

Last year, the visa process reached its cap in March and lobbyists convinced lawmakers in Washington to release an additional 15,000 visas. The NASWA, as a result, received some H-2B workers but not until the third week of July, which Makris said was too late.

Makris and the Millers say this problem needs a permanent solution and have been urging the state’s Washington delegation to get behind them.

New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, along with Reps. Annie Kuster and Chris Pappas, signed a letter penned by Maine’s two senators urging President Trump to raise the H-2B visa cap in January.

In March, Kuster signed onto a letter to then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen asking her to release more visas. Nielsen resigned from the position earlier this month, causing some business leaders in New Hampshire to worry it could be mid-summer by the time the additional visas are released.

“A seasonal business like ours,” Scott Miller said, “we have a short time to earn our income, and we need every second that we can get.”

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3321, nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)

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