U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins are supporting a bill in Congress that would help Maine businesses struggling to find seasonal employees by easing regulations on temporary foreign workers.

The bill, Save our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act of 2017, was introduced by King and Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. It would exempt foreign nationals who have previously worked in the U.S. from counting against the annual cap of workers allowed into the U.S. through the H-2B visa program. The program is typically used by seasonal, nonagricultural workers.

U.S. businesses met the visa cap in March.

“If we can at least get our returning workers back, that would alleviate some of the pressure,” said Steve Hewins, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association and Maine Restaurant Association.

Foreign seasonal workers make up about 10 percent – or 7,000 to 8,000 people – of Maine’s summer hospitality workforce, Hewins said.

The U.S. allows 66,000 total H-2B visa holders into the country a year, divided evenly between two halves of the fiscal year. The 33,000 visa cap for summer workers was reached March 13, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. To qualify for the program, businesses must prove there are not enough U.S. workers to fill temporary jobs, among other restrictions.

In previous years, returning seasonal workers were exempt from the cap, but that exemption was not extended in 2017.

“Small businesses across Maine often rely on seasonal workers to help them operate, especially during the busy summer months,” King said in a written statement. “But today, bureaucratic failures within the H-2B program are standing in the way of our businesses succeeding or even keeping their doors open. If this is not fixed, it could have very serious consequences for Maine’s economy.”

The new restrictions mean businesses that rely on H-2B visa holders are facing a worker shortage just as they try to get ready for the busy summer season, Hewins said. Some hotels and restaurants are delaying opening or staying open fewer days in the week to stretch the workforce they have, he added. Maine has a low unemployment rate and rising wages, creating hot competition in the labor market.

Maine’s hospitality industry had a record-breaking year in 2016, taking in $3.6 billion, a 7 percent increase over the previous year. Record revenues were helped by a strong tourism economy, which brought in 35.8 million visitors to the state in 2016.

A shortage of workers, however, might dampen more growth this year, Hewins said.

In early March, a group of lawmakers including Collins and King sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly asking him to conduct an audit of the H-2B visa program to see if there were any unused visas from the first half of the fiscal year that could be made available for businesses trying to find workers. In 2015, UCIS found more than 5,000 unused visas after the cap was reached and began accepting applications for them.

King and Tillis’ bill would also streamline the H-2B program to make it more transparent and require increased cooperation between federal agencies.

“By streamlining the application process and codifying the returning worker exemption, which has been vital to Maine’s seasonal businesses, our legislation will help protect American workers and allow Maine’s small businesses to thrive,” Collins said in a written statement.

 

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