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.
On 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.