Cape Cod business owners are bracing for their most unpredictable season in memory. Typically, about 3,000 seasonal workers carrying what's known as an H-2B visa travel to the Cape and Islands for work. Not this year. Only a fraction of them are approved to come back, which could mean devastating effects on small businesses.
The jobs blanket the classified ads: 16 housekeeper positions at Woods Hole Inn, 18 openings for servers at The Tavern on Nantucket, 40 spots available for ride attendants at Cape Cod Inflatable Park.
At Coonamessett Farm in East Falmouth, Ron Smolowitz is running out of time. “We ran an ad that cost us over a thousand dollars, no takers," he said. "Not a single applicant. So there are no Americans for these jobs.”
Opening day is April 29, and Farmer Ron, as he’s called, expects to go without the five seasonal, nonimmigrant employees he flies in from Jamaica every summer. They've always helped prep the berries, lettuce, and root vegetables for meals at the farm cafe. Without those workers, Smolowitz says he’ll be forced to cut his American employees by half, scale back his menu, and rethink his operating hours.
Small business owners say this Summer’s economy looks more dire for the Cape and Islands than ever before.
Foreign nationals who carry H-2B visas are not immigrants; they supplement the workforce, taking on the temporary seasonal jobs many Americans never apply for: housekeepers, freight workers, line cooks. But it's up to Congress whether to let them come back.
Every year, Congress passes a measure to exempt these returning workers from counting against the federal cutoff of 66,000 people. That cap on H-2B workers was met so early this year, the government stopped accepting applications. So far, Congress has yet to decide whether to reinstate the exemption. That means most of the temporary workers who visit from places like Jamaica, Mexico, and the Philippines will stay home.
“I’ve been doing this for 18 years. I’ve seen Cape Cod thrive and grow," said Jane Nichols Bishop, who leads Peak Season Workforce in Mashpee. "I’ve seen businesses take off, expand, go from one little clam shack to a major restaurant. And it’s because they have the workers to do it.”
Bishop navigates the labyrinth of paperwork on behalf of employers who need H-2B seasonal help to keep their small businesses running. By her count, only about 300 seasonal workers are clear to return to the Cape and Islands, down from 3,000 during a typical season. “When I see a situation like this, it really worries me," she added. "Who’s going to be able to take care of our visitors who come here for the summer?”
Right now, that’s unclear. Businesses will survive, Bishop says, but not thrive: B&Bs might take rooms out of service. Restaurants could close early, or not open at all.
At Mac’s Seafood in Wellfleet, Amy Voll is working to help reform the H-2B program on behalf of the New England Seasonal Business Coalition. She’s retained a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., to push lawmakers for a permanent, Cape Cod-specific exemption to the seasonal-worker cap.
“These H-2B workers pay into our entitlement programs," Voll said. "They pay into Social Security, and they are not eligible to take that money out.”
Not everyone is convinced. In Hyannis, while addressing a Grandmothers Against Gun Violence meeting earlier this month, former State Senator Dan Wolf remarked, “Would someone explain to me why Cape Cod has to go halfway around the world to bring labor here?”
Wolf is a Harwich-based Democrat who once was chair of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce and is CEO of Cape Air, one of the country’s biggest independent airlines. He wants to bus students from Boston to Cape Cod during the summer to help reduce youth unemployment.
But many, like Sam Bradford, the chief financial officer at Mac’s Seafood, say back-to-school schedules in the Fall interrupt the height of tourism season.
“We hire as many American workers as we possibly can," he said. "But there just aren’t any American workers willing to come down to Cape Cod for six or seven months a year, and wash dishes until 2:00 in the morning.”
But thousands of foreign workers are willing. Yolanda Tamayo runs Tamayo’s Catering several time zones away. For nine seasons, she’s traveled from the Philippines to Orleans for work at Hot Chocolate Sparrow. This could be the first Summer Tamayo doesn’t make it back, as she's yet to learn the status of her application with the Department of Labor.
Tamayo, her 25-year-old daughter Yazel, and half a dozen others from overseas wash dishes, serve coffee, and help keep an eye on the place for co-owner Perry Sparrow.
“They’re here every day. They work, they care about the business, because they feel like they’re family. And they are," said Sparrow, choking up. “I talk to them on Facebook every day. I mean, it’s hard to really explain what not having them would mean.”
Their trip back to the U.S. depends on whether the House and the Senate pass a returning worker exemption bill later this month. That would give Cape and Islands businesses hope for a strong season.
Still, even if it happens, many employers worry it’s already too late, and that without the foreign workers, many American jobs are already in jeopardy.