Calling For Seasonal Workers

Go to any seaside town — or for that matter, any resort, tourist destination, or other business that does seasonal work — and you’re likely to hear the same refrain:  the local shops and restaurants just can’t find enough employees to fill their needs.

summerhelp_crop380wOn one of our first nights in Stonington, we went to an event where we rubbed elbows with some of the locals, and one of the big topics of conversation was the labor shortage.  One restaurant that the residents particularly like didn’t open this summer because it just couldn’t find enough workers, and another had to cut back its meal service.  And as you walk around town, you see the same young people working at multiple places.  The young woman taking your order behind the lunch counter today is likely to be working at the local hardware store tomorrow.

There are two primary causes for this situation.  The first is the unemployment rate, which is at its lowest level in years.  In June, the unemployment rate was 4.0 percent.  Some economists think, practically speaking, that’s as close to “full employment” as America is likely to get.  That’s good news for workers, who have lots of bargaining power and who can command higher wages.  But it also means that some of the Americans who might otherwise gladly fill seasonal jobs waiting tables on the seashore or working at gift shops are already working full-time in other positions, leaving seasonal employers without the pool of labor they had drawn on in the past.

And the second cause is the H2-B program, which allows employers to obtain visas to bring in “guest workers” from overseas.  The problem, though, is that the program is capped at 66,000 visas each year — a number that hasn’t changed since 1992.  This year, more than 5,600 businesses applied for more than 142,000 such visas, and the Department of Labor had to allocate the visas by lottery.  If you weren’t one of the lucky winners — as was the case with some of the businesses here — you’re out of luck.

And it’s particularly tough for labor-intensive businesses like restaurants.  Owners can man the cash registers and restock the shelves at gift shops, but they can’t really serve as cook, waiter, busboy, and dishwasher all at the same time.  As one of the restaurants here realized, the only alternative is to not open for business.

A lot has changed in the American economy since 1992.  Maybe Congress should take a break from its constant fundraising and look at updating a program that provides a useful safety valve for small businesses who are dependent upon recruiting seasonal workers.

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Summer Jobs For Young And Old

If you’re looking for work this summer, you might just want to go to Maine.

Changes to the federal immigration laws that govern the ability of foreign workers to come to America and obtain seasonal employment have created a kind of labor shortage for cooks, waiters, bike shop workers, and other job staples during the Maine summer tourist season.   The laws permit 33,000 people to obtain visa to do seasonal work in the United States, but the way in which those workers are counted has changed.  Before, returning workers weren’t counted toward that 33,000 number; now they are.  As a result, the 33,000 ceiling has already been reached, primarily by hiring in the southern states.  Maine, where the season won’t really begin for a month or so, gets the short end of the stick.

IMG_0441Will the Maine businesses that used to hire foreign workers just close up shop?  No, of course not — because it’s not a real labor shortage until the entrepreneurs that run those businesses try to address the issue through other means.  If foreign workers aren’t available, maybe something can be done to attract non-foreign workers to fill the open jobs.  So Maine businesses are looking at offering higher wages, flexible work schedules that might be appealing to older workers, and other approaches that will allow them to get the jobs done with locals.  It’s a classic example of the law of supply and demand and the invisible hand at work (pun intended).

Of course, Maine’s elected representatives are attempting to change the law to reinstitute the exception for returning workers that will allow more foreign hiring to occur, because for local businesses it’s no doubt cheaper and easier to hire those workers than it is to recruit, train, and deal with locals who might be more demanding about pay and hours and other job conditions.  But for now, at least, opportunity can be found in Maine, if you’re a kid, or a retiree, who’s willing to serve up lobster rolls or work in a bike shop or serve as a deck hand on a tour boat in order to put some extra dollars in your pocket.

As someone who left Columbus, Ohio and spent a wonderful summer working at the Alpine Village resort in Lake George, New York in 1976 — an experience you can read about here and here — I don’t think changes in our federal immigration laws that incentivize businesses to hire local teenagers and seniors for summer jobs is a bad thing.  If the changes open the way for more American kids to get used to the concept of holding down a job, keeping the boss happy, earning a paycheck, and putting money in the bank, that’s a good thing in my book.