Since the Trump administration began instating a cap on H-2B visas, the visas often used by businesses to hire seasonal foreign workers, many companies on the Cape have struggled to find summer employees. Though a recent raise in the cap is expected to add an additional 15,000 H2B workers nationally, some are looking towards Puerto Rico as a way to fill vacancies.
These are business owners like Bob Maffei of Maffei Landscaping in Mashpee. Maffei has always needed to hire extra help for his landscaping company in the summer, but after 20 of his regular H2B visa workers were declined this year, he needed to look elsewhere.
"The H2b program is something we’ve invested in heavily in the past, and this year we just weren’t able to get our visas back," he said.
This year, a lottery system was used to choose which H-2B visa workers could return for the season, and none of Maffei’s were chosen.
"So although we made a tremendous investment with employees from Jamaica, we were left without any opportunity to bring them back, so being short so many employees we had to find some sort of alternative to replace them," he said.
The moment is right for this kind of hiring: because Puerto Rico’s a territory of the United States, there’s no need for a visa, and because their economy is struggling after Hurricane Maria hit in October, many are looking for jobs. Last month at a job fair in San Juan, Maffei hired 20 seasonal workers who were then flown out to the Cape for the start of the season - enough to fill the gaps left by the loss of H-2B workers. He said that he realized the Puerto Rico to Cape Cod connection could be a natural fit.
"Puerto Rico has an opposite tourist season to Cape Cod," Maffei said. "So the neat thing for us was when we really needed the help they didn’t need the labor as much, and when they did need the help, we could provide the labor back."
Benjamin Quintana was working in Puerto Rico at his family’s bowling alley when he heard that Maffei’s company was hiring. He says in the wake of the storm, employment opportunities on the Island aren’t great right now.
"Job-wise it’s not so good, opportunity it’s not good," Quintana said. "So that’s why we decided to fly up here because we had a good opportunity to better ourselves."
He said he never thought he’d come up to the Cape for work.
"I had no plans on leaving the island and then they told me we have this opportunity it pays good you’re going to have a house and a car. So I said 'Ok then, let’s do it,' and we flew here."
The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce has noted increased interest in companies going to recruit directly from Puerto Rico, and for Hyannis-based immigration attorney Matthew Lee, he said he's had a number of his clients say they’d be looking to fill H-2B vacancies with Puerto Rican workers as well.
"This is the first year my clients have gone down to Puerto Rico to look for seasonal or temporary workers, normally they have H-2Bs and J-1s," Lee said. J-1's are visas granted to students coming from abroad.
He says that the Cape typically gets about 4 thousand to 5 thousand H-2B visa workers, but that this year only about 2 thousand were accepted. While Maffei’s company has housing and car leasing services already lined up because of their past experience with H-2B workers, hiring from the territory is still an investment because of extra recruitment and training that needs to be done.
"The difference is the H-2B's that were unable to come in, many have been coming here for 12-15 years," Lee said. "They’re familiar with their employer and company, they know they don’t need any training they can do their jobs right away and many employers tell me their H-2B's are like family."
And though Maffei is hopeful that his workers from Puerto Rico will return in years to come, Lee warned that may not be a guarantee as the region rebuilds.
"Hopefully the Puerto Rican government and infrastructure gets built back quickly, and if they do, I can see there being a reticence to come to the Cape for the summer," Lee said.
For Benjamin Quintana though, he said he doesn't see himself returning to Puerto Rico.
"Maybe I'll go visit, but just to go and stay on the Island, no, I like it here," he said.
He hopes he’ll be hired on for the winter landscaping season to help plow snow in December - something he’s never done before, but says he’s game to learn. For WCAI, I’m Sarah Tan.