Visa woes have summer businesses looking to Puerto Ricans


By DAVID SHARP and CLAUDIA TORRENS, AP
PHIPPSBURG, Maine

Frustrated by red tape and visa limits on foreign workers, tourism businesses from Maine to Missouri are turning to Puerto Ricans who are fleeing a shattered economy and devastation caused by Hurricane Maria.

Bob Smith, owner of Sebasco Harbor Resort in Phippsburg, hired a half-dozen Puerto Ricans last summer for housekeeping, landscaping and kitchen work, providing relief to his overworked staff. This summer he is doubling the number, and he would like to hire even more.

Louis Morales, 50, of Comerio, Puerto Rico, is happy to be here because he makes double the salary he would back home, where jobs are scarce.

“A lot of people lost their houses, their jobs, everything. It’s not the same now,” said Morales, a maintenance worker who worked at Sebasco last year and has recruited more residents from Comerio to join him.

Employers large and small are seeking alternative solutions as demand continues to outstrip the annual allotment of 66,000 H-2B temporary visas, which are issued for workers holding down seasonal, nonagricultural jobs.

Critics fear that immigration politics were playing a role in program changes starting last summer. Compounding the uncertainty for businesses was a lottery system and background check delays on workers who come from dozens of countries from the Caribbean to Croatia.

On Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced 15,000 additional visas and acknowledged reforms were needed.

With Maine’s unemployment rate below 3 percent, there aren’t enough local people willing to take those seasonal jobs, Smith said.

“People say you should give these jobs to Americans. If you can find ’em, then that’s great,” he said. “The only Americans we can find to do the work right now are in Puerto Rico.”

As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans face no travel restrictions and can work as long as they want. They won’t solve the summer work shortage, but for some on the mainland it’s helping as employers frantically try to fill slots, with Memorial Day weekend signaling the unofficial start of the summer tourism season.

Many mainland businesses have been hiring people from the Caribbean territory for years, and they sent recruiters after the hurricane.

More than 30,000 businesses closed and an estimated 130,000 to more than 200,000 left for the mainland after Maria struck as a Category 4 storm last September, causing more than $100 billion in damage, the government said.

In the Missouri entertainment mecca of Branson, about 400 Puerto Rican workers have been recruited over the past year to work in the hospitality and nursing industries.

“When we look at the available avenues to attract workers, we are very limited,” said Jeff Seifried of the Branson Chamber of Commerce.

Off the coast of Massachusetts, Mark Snider used to have about 80 foreign guest workers for his Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard hotels, but this year he is about 20 to 30 workers short. He has hired 10 to 15 workers from Puerto Rico to shore up his summer workforce, he said.

Aveluz Costello was getting paid $7.25 per hour at the front desk of a hotel in Puerto Rico last year, barely making enough money to pay the bills and help maintain her mother. Now, the 26-year-old Puerto Rican says she makes $18.50 per hour as the supervisor of the housekeeping department of Snider’s Nantucket hotel.

“I am able to send money to my mother,” she said. “Of course, I miss her terribly, but we are both more comfortable financially. I am very grateful.”

In Phippsburg, Smith gave up on the H2-B program years ago. But he tried again last summer, desperate for workers, and quickly realized why he had become so disillusioned.

His request for workers was delayed to the point that the employees themselves had given up by the time he received approval in August, he said.

He didn’t bother this year. Instead, several of his workers from Puerto Rico arrived early to help get the resort ready for the season.

Last week, Morales was painting trim and performing other maintenance jobs. Other Puerto Ricans were working in a garden; cooking and doing dishes in kitchen; cleaning rooms and doing laundry; and getting the golf course in shape.

Smith also hired some foreign students to work at the resort under a different visa program, but they have to leave before the season comes to an end. He has also hired workers from Colorado, Utah and Washington state this summer.

___

Torrens reported from New York. Associated Press writer Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.

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