A federal budget deal reached by Congress late Sunday could bring relief to Maine employers struggling to find seasonal workers.

The proposed $1 trillion spending bill, to be voted on this week, would fund the federal government until the end of September. It includes a provision to raise the cap on the number of H-2B visas issued to temporary foreign workers, a program widely used in Maine’s hospitality sector during the summer tourist season.

H-2B visas are granted when non-agricultural employers cannot find enough local help. Some businesses have been bringing the same temporary workers back for years.

The U.S. grants 66,000 H-2B visas a year, but a returning worker exemption in 2016 allowed businesses to hire people who previously participated in the program without affecting the cap.

The exemption was eliminated in 2017 as demand for H-2B visas surged. The annual cap was reached in March, while many Maine hotels, inns and restaurants still had pending applications for visas, leaving businesses scrambling to find replacement workers. At least one bed and breakfast in Castine delayed opening for the summer season by about a month because it was unable to bring in the workers it requested.

The compromise budget wouldn’t reinstate the returning worker exemption, but it would raise the visa cap to 129,547, equal to the number of visas issued in 2007, the program’s peak, said Greg Dugal, director of government affairs for the Maine Innkeepers Association. The bill could make about 63,500 more visas available for employers this year, but expansion would be at the discretion of the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Although the temporary measure would bring some relief, it would not fix the issue permanently and could still leave businesses shorthanded this season. About 140 Maine employers applied for 2,877 visas in 2017, 370 more visas than in 2015 and almost double the number requested in 2009. The U.S. issued 122,000 visas last year, and demand in 2017 could still exceed the proposed expanded cap, Dugal said.

“I’m not 100 percent sure it will solve everyone’s problems,” he said, but it will undoubtedly help an industry trying to “stitch together” a workforce of thousands.

Congress needs to vote on the budget before Friday to prevent a government shutdown. Dugal said he is optimistic the bill will pass.

“I don’t think they would put something out there if they thought they were going to nitpick it,” he said.

Maine’s congressional delegation has been pushing to make the returning worker exemption permanent, and to reform the H-2B program to make it easier to use.

Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins, in a joint statement Monday, said the H-2B provision was a win for Maine’s small-business owners.

“I am pleased that the bipartisan budget agreement provides much-needed relief to the cap on H-2B visas that we pushed for, which will help small businesses thrive, protect American workers and expand economic opportunities for local residents,” Collins said in her statement.

King said he was “committed to working alongside my colleagues in a bipartisan manner to see that the secretaries of Homeland Security and Labor provide additional visas in a timely manner so businesses across the state can keep their doors open this summer.”

Conservative critics of the H-2B program say the workers compete with Americans for the same jobs, while some liberal politicians and labor unions have accused employers and recruiting agencies of exploiting foreign workers.

With a historically low unemployment rate of 3 percent, an aging population and private-sector hiring at an all-time high, it has been a challenge for some Maine businesses to hire local workers for seasonal jobs, especially for hotel housekeeping and kitchen help.

The H-2B program is tightly regulated, time-consuming and expensive. It costs roughly $2,000 per worker to go through the process, not including airfare and housing, and workers are paid a prevailing wage set by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Relatively few H-2B visa holders are hired in Maine. The number of H-2B visas requested by Maine employers in 2015 accounted for about 1,900 workers, roughly 3 percent of the 64,000 workers in Maine’s hospitality and leisure sector, according to the Maine Department of Labor. King and Collins, in a letter to the Senate majority and minority leaders last week, said each H-2B worker creates and sustains 4.6 American jobs.

If the stopgap measure passes this week it will relieve pressure on Maine employers, but business owners and others need to consider solutions to avoid recurring problems with seasonal workers as the state contends with a persistent labor shortage, Dugal said.

“Hopefully we can put our time and effort into good use and resolve this in many different ways,” he said.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PeteL_McGuire

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