|By Edward D. Murphy, Portland Press Herald, Maine|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 1, 2004 - Maine businesses that cater to summer tourists are looking to the U.S. Virgin Islands to help ease a looming shortage of seasonal workers this summer.
But even though unemployment in some parts of the Virgin Islands is in double digits, the recruitment of workers there isn't expected to make much more than a dent in the Maine shortfall.
The labor situation "is dire," said Greg Dugal, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association. "The worst-case scenario is that we'll be 30 to 40 percent understaffed this summer."
Tourism and labor officials say the problem can be traced to the federal government's H-2B visa program, under which workers from foreign countries come to the U.S. to work for up to eight months in jobs that require relatively few skills. Maine tourism businesses used about 2,400 workers under the program last year, Dugal said.
But the government set a national cap of 66,000 visas this year, slightly below the number issued last year. Because of higher demand and the fact that the program starts on Oct. 1, the limit was reached by the time Maine summer businesses began applying for workers' visas in late winter.
"We probably need 90,000 this year," Dugal said, but a proposal to increase the cap is tied up in Congress.
Maureen Oosten, whose business "Workers on the Move" supplies seasonal workers in New England, said she decided to try to recruit in the Virgin Islands a couple of months ago. Because the As a territory, Virgin Islands is a U.S. territory, its residents are U.S. citizens, so and there's no cap on how many can come to the mainland looking for work.
Oosten said that between clients in Maine and other New England states, she could probably place as many as 2,000 workers, but has lined up fewer than 500. With the Caribbean tourist season winding down, she expects the number of applicants to increase.
"We've been going 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the past six or seven weeks," said Oosten. She said she is now trying to recruit in Puerto Rico and Miami, where the tourism season is also ending.
Cecil R. Benjamin, commissioner of labor for the Virgin Islands, said his department is eager to help supply workers.
"It's a great opportunity for us," he said, because it not only supplies jobs during a slow part of the year, but also gives residents experience in an industry where, in season, jobs back home are plentiful.
"It can be very useful, a win-win situation here," said Benjamin, who this week hosted a group from Massachusetts looking for workers. "This is a U.S. territory and the people here are first-class, qualified U.S. citizens."
Laura Fortman, Maine's commissioner of labor, said she supports the efforts to find enough workers to fill seasonal jobs, but wants businesses to look in-state as well.
"We're trying to make sure that all of the folks that are currently looking for work are aware of the jobs that are available," she said.
Her department is setting up programs to help retirees find seasonal work to supplement their incomes, as well as targeting new Maine residents and young workers. The state is also putting inserts in unemployment checks to remind residents that the jobs, which generally pay $8 an hour or more, are out there.
She said the state isn't sure how bad the problem will be, but "we're hearing a lot of concern from the hospitality industry and other folks who employ seasonal workers."
Kathryn Weare, owner of the Cliff House in York, said she's trying a number of approaches to fill the 22 jobs -- out of about 175 -- that were filled by H-2B visa-holders last year.
"We've had the same people who would like to come back," Weare said.
"They've come here for five or six years, and this is very hard for them."
Weare said she has established the resort as an educational institution so she can get students, such as two cooks coming from the New England Culinary Institute, to work at the Cliff House to satisfy internship requirements.
She also found one worker from the Virgin Islands through Oosten, and she paid $4,300 in newspaper ads in March alone looking for local workers. But she estimates she still needs another 10 or so workers for summer.
"Every college kid and high school kid in the state has no reason to say they can't get a job," Weare said. But she noted that students solve only part of the problem for businesses such as the Cliff House because September has become as big a month for tourism as August, and school is back in session then.
Dugal said innkeepers may have to do some of the work, such as making the beds and helping out in the kitchen, that they've had workers for in past years. But they'll make adjustments, he said, because they have only a short window of time in which to make their living.
"They'll do what they have to do," he said. "I wouldn't call it a catastrophe, but it's going to be very difficult."
-----To see more of the Portland Press Herald, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.portland.com
(c) 2004, Portland Press Herald, Maine. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.