In 2007 Wendy Northcross CEO of the Cape Cod chamber of commerce was asked how the Bush administrations cap on the H-2b visas was going to affect staffing of seasonal cape cod businesses she had a simple statement “It's going to be a challenge”. That was 13 years ago and there were 33,000 H2-b Visas available. For the summer season on Cape Cod and the rest of the country. This year the quote that best sums it up may be: ”it’s been a mess”.
Janet Demetri described the situation at her Eastham restaurant. “I normally have 35 people. Now I have 9.” Some of the lack of staffing can be attributed to fear of Covid 19. But on Cape Cod there is another obstacle that is proving to be just as much of an impediment to the success of the tourist based economy.
Since President Trump's ban on visas for seasonal workers, seasonal businesses have found themselves with a huge hole to fill and no one to fill it.
In January, at the beginning of what looked like a normal year, 5500 employers applied for over 99000 visas for temp workers. These applications were then placed in a lottery with 33000 spots. Then there would have been additional visas if business can prove they have a chance of failing without the added foreign workers.
In June the Trump administration suspended almost all of the visas for foreign workers. Thus making a covid-fueled dumpster fire of a summer just that much more difficult. The administration is said to have made the changes not just to protect people from Covid but also to save those jobs that would have gone to the foreign workers for out of work Americans.
U.S. Rep William Keating of Massachusetts was asked about how the proclamation affects his constituents “In our region, (the proclamation) hurts jobs in a time when we are trying to keep people’s head above water." The jobs that foreign workers take are temporary seasonal jobs that some American may take a bridge till more permanent employment opens up, but in places like Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket this is rarely the case. As there are less year round residents to take these jobs, restaurants have long looked beyond the borders of the US for help.
According to Jamie Holmes, general manager of the Nantucket Hotel: “It means the (Breeze) restaurant will be open five nights instead of seven. It means the amount of people you can serve is less. We have had to look at operations and see where we can cut, because there’s no skilled labor.”
The demographics don't help. A 2018 Pioneer Institute study shows a 29 percent decrease in the population on Cape Cod of people between the ages of 34-44 years, old with only a small increase in people in their 20s. With season rentals being expensive, wages being low, and commutes long it seems to be unrealistic to think that unemployed Americans will be flocking to the Cape and islands to fill these jobs. Many businesses have had to cut hours to fit staffing ratios. Thus shrinking their year round revenue. Many fear for the long term survival of these businesses.
As August continues, and the (still busy) fall season looms, most businesses are just hoping to salvage what's left of the shortened, pandemic fear filled, bad economic downturn season.
As storms begins to form in the south, people on the Cape and Islands must be asking: what's next, locusts?
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