Washington County hospitality businesses that rely on seasonal employees from other countries that use the J‑1 and/or H2B Visa program are finding that they are being squeezed hard this year. International students and employees aren't coming to the U.S. in the numbers of the past, and more populous coastal communities downstate are competing with higher wages for the scarce resource of J‑1 or H2B Visa holders and Maine employees.
While Gale White and McGinley Jones of the Lubec Brewing Company do not utilize the H2B or J‑1 Visa program because of their year‑round business model, White says, "We have been told our search for a whole foods chef will be difficult, as Bar Harbor and other Maine coast seasonal towns are up the creek this year, and therefore they will be paying far more than we can afford in order to hire cooks they have formerly hired from overseas, and we pay very well. It is interesting to witness the ripple effect through our area, but the good thing at last for employees is higher wages."
Sue Lara of the Seaview Campground in Eastport adds that she, too, has heard that Bar Harbor "is having a really hard time. To get students and staff -- it's like a bidding war."
The J‑1 Visa program allows international visitors and students the opportunity to travel and work within the United States for educational purposes, in addition to gaining cultural experiences. Senator Angus King has focused attention on the need to preserve the H2B Visa program that allows international workers, from select countries, to fill non‑agricultural jobs for United States and Maine employers in need of workers. Both are important sources of seasonal employees for a state that has an aging population and pockets where employees are hard to come by, especially seasonal ones.
In Lubec and Eastport the J‑1 Visa program has been utilized for a number of years. Judy and Victor Trafford, who own and operate The Inn on the Wharf in Lubec, have used the J‑1 and H2B Visa programs. "We can't find workers. No one comes in response to ads." Judy Trafford adds that, with an older population, staffing is challenging. "We got lucky with the J‑1 program because we filed back in early fall," before the election results came in.
Lara has had international students utilizing the J‑1 Visa program work for her at the shorefront campground for many years. Usually she has had four with her over the summer season working in the kitchen doing prep work and helping with the cleaning. She explains that she had signed up for four students but they all dropped out this year. "They don't know what's going to happen with the political situation," with the Trump administration's travel ban and other policy decisions possibly contributing to student fears about coming to the United States. "Students have their own website. They contact each other to see how jobs and experiences are," Lara adds.
J‑1 Visa students do well working in the Downeast region, says Lara. "A lot who went to Cape Cod, even though the wages are better, expenses were much higher." She adds, "They want to work. They want to earn money. What one made one summer her Dad made all year in Kosovo. They want to make money and to experience U.S. culture."
Lara has enjoyed learning from the students, too. "It's nice to learn about their culture and what motivates them to come here. Also, having U.S. work experience is very good for them to have on their resumé." She is in contact with many of them and enjoys hearing about their careers as they move into their adult years.
Seasonal employees hard to come by
Starting in 1997 at his Bar Harbor bakery business, Eastport Chowder House Restaurant and WaCo Diner owner Bob Del Papa has used J‑1 Visa students to help during the summer months. "The first students that came were Irish, and they were studying to be doctors. I used this service until 2002 when the bakery was sold and I moved to Eastport." For two years Del Papa did not use the program for his Eastport restaurants but "found it very difficult to find employees who wanted seasonal employment." He turned to the J‑1 Visa program and began using three to four students every year until the 2017 season, when he did not apply because there was a possibility that he would be selling the restaurant.
"They were excellent workers, always on time, and always willing to do whatever they were assigned," says Del Papa. "Their main reason for entering this program was to learn about American culture and improve their English skills." He adds, "I may apply for students again in the future, depending on the status of J‑1 Visas."
Lara, too, hopes to continue using the program. She or her local crew will "just have to work even harder, just have to do the hours myself" and see if some retirees with an interest in summer work come forward. She has had some success with this approach in the past but has found that retirees with valuable skills and a gung‑ho work ethic are sometimes enticed back to their former workplace in the county because their employer can't find replacements. Or, as in another case, the camping and RV lifestyle hits the retiree with a vengeance and they get the travel bug. "We'll apply again next year," she says. "Hopefully relations will be better and the students will come."