New England Nightmare: Small seasonal businesses are desperate for workers

Small business owners are frustrated they can't find workers

By Kimberly Morin

Yesterday, on one of the first warm days of the spring season, Steve Faulkner was busy gearing up for peak season in the landscaping industry in New Hampshire. Faulkner owns Faulkner Landscaping and Nursery in Hooksett. While Faulkner should be excited about the new season as he and his employees prepare for the onslaught of landscaping construction contracts, maintenance and the avid gardening customers shopping in his nursery, he was not. Instead, Political Buzz interviewed a distraught and extremely frustrated small business owner who cannot find workers he is in desperate need of.

One of the downsides of owning a seasonal business is that there are only certain months out of the year where a full staff is needed. In Faulkner’s case, it’s about 9 months out of the year from April to December. Since most Americans need full-time permanent jobs in order to pay the bills, it’s hard to find workers who are willing to only work certain months and then find themselves unemployed.  Faulkner is actually giving away business because he does not have the workers he needs.

This situation is nothing new with seasonal businesses in New England or across the country. Small business owners have been dealing with a lack of American workers for years. They understand people need to work all year round but that doesn’t help them during their peak seasons. One of the solutions they’ve been able to use has been the guest worker H-2B program.

The H-2B program is a temporary guest worker program that allows American businesses (mostly small business) to bring in foreign workers to provide relief during peak seasons when they cannot fill positions needed with American workers. From the Department of Homeland Security:

The H-2B program allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary nonagricultural jobs.

There are extremely rigid regulations on this program. Employers have to first prove they actively sought American workers and were unable to find them. Businesses literally have to provide evidence that they advertised locally for job openings and provide details if they got applicants who they did not hire. Only those businesses who can prove they cannot find American workers for the positions they need to fill can even apply for H-2B workers. These workers are only meant as a supplement to American workers during the busiest seasons of the year.

The federal government sets a “cap” on the number of workers who are eligible for the H-2B program every year. The cap was set at 66,000 for the entire year with 33,000 being capped in the first half.  The cap was reached, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) department, before April 1 of this year. This means that many New England businesses were left in the dust when petitioning for their H-2B workers right when peak season starts in the region. The program doesn’t open up again until October which is far too late for small businesses in the northeast. The number of workers who come to the United States is so minute it isn’t even a blip on the radar when compared to the total number of American workers in the country.

The cap is proving to be a nightmare for Sarah Diment of The Beachmere Inn in Ongunquit, Maine. Diment has been using the program for years to supplement her American workers during the peak summer tourist season. Because she cannot get workers due to the cap and cannot find American workers to fill much-needed open positions, she is actually taking rooms out of inventory for the season. Diment typically hires maybe 6 H-2B workers per season who arrive in the beginning of April and leave at the end of October.

Diment’s problems are made worse by regulations regarding teenagers working in her industry. Even if she had teenagers who wanted to work for her, there are so many limitations put into place by the government that makes it practically impossible. Diment hasn’t cancelled any existing reservations already made by customers but she’s taken out $20,000 worth of rooms that could have been sold due to the lack of workers and she may have to take out $20,000 more for a total of $40,000 in a loss of business and it’s only the beginning of the peak season:

We have to take more inventory [of rooms] out over the next four weeks because we literally do not have enough help.

The frustrating piece is these temporary workers, these seasonal workers; they support my year-round [American] staff. My year round staff is looking at me like how the hell are we going to get through this season? They’re scared.

It’s not as if hiring H-2B workers is cheaper than hiring American workers. In fact, they actually cost businesses more money. Employers not only have to pay to bring their workers to the United States but they also pay prevailing wages that are set by the government. Employers are not allowed to pay under this wage so that they don’t undercut the pay of American workers. These employers are paying prevailing wages and on top of that paying for services to help get H-2B workers and then paying for the workers to get to the United States and back home again. H-2B workers literally cost more to employ than American workers.

Allen Sylvester of American Tent & Table in Marston Mills, Massachusetts mirrors the frustrations of both Faulkner and Diment. Sylvester has been using the H-2B program since 2006. He started with only 6 workers but then increased to 12 in the past few years due to an increase in business. He can’t find American workers for his peak season either:

We ran our ad and I didn’t get a single response, not a phone call, not a single resume, nothing. There was a company on Nantucket who ran an ad for housekeeping for $28 an hour and they didn’t get a single response.

I don’t think everyone realizes what a problem this is going to be until it’s a problem.

If I could hire Americans I would, it’s just not that simple.

Sylvester also made the point in the interview that H-2B workers are actually cheaper for the government. American workers would be laid off for months if they worked for him meaning they’d be collecting unemployment and be part of other potential entitlement programs like Masshealth. H-2B workers cannot collect unemployment or any other government benefits. They come here, work, pay taxes like all other Americans and then go home. While these workers are here they also spend money in the local economy. They pay rent, buy products, pay taxes and then leave.

This is a huge issue in Bar Harbor, Maine as well. Ernie Geiger owns 2 Cats Restaurant in the town. While he only closes for a couple of months out of the year, Geiger also needs workers during the high peak summer season and cannot find them.  No one wants to go there to work only to be laid off after several months. Geiger has been using the H-2B program for the past few years and it’s worked out extremely well for his restaurant. Not getting these workers will hurt his business as well as others in the community.

It’s the big talk of the town. I know at least 20 other companies that bring up workers. It gets into the hundreds that we’re [businesses in Bar Harbor] going to be short this year.

We won’t be able to serve as many people as we normally can. We’re not going to be able to deliver the same quality service or product. It’s going to stress the whole community out.

All of the small businesses above are different but they are all experiencing the same issues – they cannot find American workers to fill the gap during their peak season; the government won’t let them use guest workers because of the cap; their businesses are already suffering as are their core American staff and customers may suffer as well. Not only will the local economy take a hit because of the lack of workers but the decrease in tax “revenues” to the government will as well.

What are these seasonal small businesses to do? Their hands are completely tied by the federal government. Only Congress can give them any sort of relief. The country has a President who wants to ‘make America great again’ but that isn’t possible if the engines of the economy, small businesses, aren’t allowed to help the economy grow. The only people stopping these businesses from growing are in the federal government. The only people standing in the way of their success are members of congress.