Merlene Warren, of Montego Bay, Jamaica, cleans a guest room at the Meadowmere Resort in Ogunquit in 2013. Warren was working temporarily in the U.S. with an H-2B visa. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer, file

To help Maine’s small businesses amid a heightening workforce shortage, Maine’s two U.S. senators are once again a part of a push to expand America’s temporary visa program for foreign workers.

Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King say they have worked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor to secure an additional 64,716 H-2B visas – on top of the congressionally mandated 66,000 – that allows employers to temporarily hire foreign workers.

Collins, a Republican, and King, an independent, have been doing this work for years, first pushing the DHS and DOL last year to hit the limit of H-2B visas that can be issued in a single fiscal year.

U.S. Sens. Angus King, I-Maine, and Susan Collins, R-Maine. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer, file

The senators say it’s a needed solution to bolster Maine’s small businesses, especially those in the hospitality industry, which have increasingly come to rely on foreign workers while struggling to fill positions. King and Collins hope that this increase, along with continued efforts to expand the legal limit for the visa program, will be “a lifeline for our state’s economy.”

“Our track record is pretty clear that more is better when it comes to H-2Bs because Maine needs more,” King spokesperson Matthew Felling said in an interview. “H-2B visas are the gas in the tank of the seasonal work economy, whether it’s restaurants along the coast, hotels, hospitality – they need access to these visas to make sure they can keep the doors open.”

The push follows a stretch of restrictions on the H-2B visa program under the Trump administration. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump temporarily banned H-1B and H-2B visas except for workers in the food service industry. That followed years of back and forth, with Trump first increasing the cap and then turning the visa distribution into a lottery program. At the same time, Congress let an exemption die that allowed employers to hire returning workers without affecting the cap.


Through those changes, Maine has been battling a growing workforce shortage that has intensified in the last five years. In 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023, many seasonal and year-round businesses have told the Portland Press Herald how they have been scrambling to find workers. The shortages are partly because of record-low unemployment rates but also because of limitations on workforce visas. Leading up to this past summer, 70% of businesses that spoke with the Maine Tourism Association said they’d be understaffed for the season.

“The cutbacks made it so that employers have had to rely on shrinking their own business practice because they didn’t have enough employees,” said HospitalityMaine’s Nate Cloutier.

The number of Maine applications for H-2B visas has shot up in the last seven years. Employers in Maine made 2,507 requests for H-2B visa positions in 2016, according to the earliest data from the Maine Department of Labor. So far this year, over 5,443 requests and counting have been made for H-2B worker positions – with 4,533 certified at this point. The MDOL did not provide data on how many positions were certified from 2016 to 2022.

“It’s been a crucial tool for employers to be able to ensure that they have enough workers to be able to work, especially during the busy tourism seasons,” Cloutier said. “But historically, our members especially have had difficulty with getting these visas on time or at the times they are needed most.”

President Biden has started reviving that program, but Maine’s senators say more needs to be done.

In order to do so, U.S. Sens. Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina, and Alex Padilla, D-California, are currently drafting the Seasonal Employment Protection Act of 2023 to amend Immigration and Nationality Act to improve the H–2B temporary nonagricultural worker program.


According to a current draft sent to the Press Herald, the legislation would increase the 66,000 H-2B visa cap to 125,000. It would also allow employers who have used the H-2B visa program the preceding five consecutive years to be exempt from the cap. Ahead of any announcements from Graham or Padilla, labor groups have offered mixed feelings on the legislation.  The National Association of Landscape Professionals and the Seasonal Employment Alliance have come out in support, but the National Association of Home Builders is opposed to the bill because of concerns about additional restrictions on how the construction industry can access H-2B visas.

Felling said King is still reviewing all of the legislation around visa programs and workforce shortages, and has yet to make any decisions, especially since this is still a draft.

“Let’s find the right balance on where the visas need to be so we can fully unlock the potential of our overseas economy,” Felling said.

HospitalityMaine is hopeful that pushes from King and Collins, as well as sweeping changes from the legislation, can ease the stress on employers.

“If we can’t count on having a program like H-2B, then businesses will inherently have to reevaluate their business model and say, ‘OK, I have to operate with a lesser workforce.’ That means a less money in the economy, which just isn’t something that we want to see,” Cloutier said. “But it gives us some hope that this conversation is going to continue.”

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