The number of seasonal guest worker visas could double  this year if the federal budget deal brokered on Monday is signed into law before the end of the week, as expected.

Technically, that could make an additional 60,000 or more seasonal non-farm workers available nationwide between now and the end of September if the Secretary of Homeland Security agrees to raise the cap after consulting the Department of Labor. The annual quota for H-2B temporary worker visas, which was capped at 60,000 for 2017, was reached in March.

It is not yet clear how much lifting the visa cap will help Maine employers struggling to find summer help for the season that starts in just over three weeks, since processing foreign worker visas can take weeks. Some fear visas will not be approved by July 4.

The H-2B visa application process, which is the employer’s responsibility, takes a minimum of 116 days from start to finish if expedited by paying an additional $1,225 fee for speedy processing, so a new application is unlikely to help midcoast employers with their seasonal worker crunch this summer. Employers who have already applied are in a better position to get help in June if the cap is lifted. Also, employers must pay the prevailing minimum wage at the state level and must advertise for local workers first before the H-2B visa application can move forward.

 As Maine’s workforce ages and unemployment drops to record lows, some seasonal businesses have been unable to find local help for relatively unskilled labor. In recent years, many coastal Maine businesses have relied on the temporary H-2B visa program to sponsor temporary seasonal workers from countries like Jamaica and Bulgaria to make beds, wash dishes, plant bushes, mow lawns and stock shelves during the busy summer season. 

Until this year, many guest workers returned year after year to the same employer without being counted as part of the national H-2B quota. The returning-worker exemption was dropped last fall, and the budget deal does not reinstate it, according to a spokesman for Senator Angus King. In March, King and Susan Collins co-sponsored the Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act of 2017, which would reinstate the returning guest worker exemption. No action has yet been taken on the bill.