National vs. Maine Unemployment Rate, seasonally adjusted (Source: Maine Dept. of Labor)
National vs. Maine Unemployment Rate, seasonally adjusted (Source: Maine Dept. of Labor)
Local employers are scrambling to find enough workers to fill seasonal positions as summer approaches.

The once reliable method of filling seasonal vacancies with guest workers from countries like Jamaica and Mexico has been in flux for the past few years. This year, the U.S. Congress capped the number of guest workers nationwide on the H2B visa program at 66,000.

Many seasonal employers in the midcoast use H2B workers to fill restaurant, housekeeping, landscaping, and manufacturing positions. Others, including the Samoset, use the foreign college student worker visa program.

A federal lottery to pick employers to receive H2B workers was used for the first time in 2018. On the other end, foreign guest workers applied for the H2B visa in their own countries. Recruiters act as middlemen between the employees and employers.

In Maine, some got their guest workers. Others didn’t

Mathews Brothers in Belfast, who sought guest workers for the first time this year, was picked in the lottery. Young’s Lobster Pound, which has had guest workers for the past 17 years, was not.

Three new guest workers arrived at Mathews Brothers in Belfast two weeks ago for a six-month stay for manufacturing jobs.

Mathews Brothers bought a four-bedroom house next to the factory to provide worker housing.

Employers using H2B visa have to provide a competitive wage and worker housing.

Four workers were recruited through a consultant and applied for their visas in Mexico. Only three passed the visa process. Another is currently being selected and will join the company later in the season.

Mathews Brothers managers have been impressed.

“One of my supervisors told me these guys really understand piece work on manufacturing lines and if their work slows down, they jump right in to help on other jobs,” said Mathews Brothers President Scott Hawthorne. “She told me that if we could find another 10 workers like that, she would take them today.”

That’s not likely. The H2B lottery is closed for 2018 workers, according to a spokesperson at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Department of Homeland Security. There are no plans to reopen it, he said.

 


Greg Dugal from the Maine Innkeepers and Restaurant Association said employers from Bar Harbor to York that his organization represents were able to secure 1,500 H2B guest workers through the lottery for the summer — twice as many as last year, but still at least half the number needed to get the job done.

“From what we’re hearing, most got some workers, few got all the workers they were looking for, and some got none at all,” said Dugal.

Young’s Lobster Pound, which has employed foreign guest workers from Jamaica since 2001, introduced the H2B hiring process to Hawthorne. Luck didn’t favor Young’s in the lottery.

Young’s usually employs 12 Jamaicans every summer and puts them up in two houses in Belfast that the company bought for worker housing.

This year, they will get no H2B workers.

“We are still trying to figure out what to do for summer help since finding out a couple of weeks ago,” said Amanda Young-Williams.

Young-Williams said they have had two local people reply to help-wanted advertisements they placed.

It’s not going to be easy for employers like Young’s to fill those positions with local workers, given that the Maine unemployment rate in March was 2.7 percent — the lowest in the past 60 years.

While Cumberland County has the lowest unemployment rate, by county, the midcoast counties are at 3.4 percent and dropping, according to the Maine Department of Labor (DOL).

Since Maine has an aging population with many people either retired or reaching retirement age, the tight labor market is likely to continue for years, unless the economy turns sour, according to the Maine DOL.

Calls for expanding guest worker programs are growing, even as anti-immigrant policies gain strength in the U.S. It’s unclear how that will play out. At the same time the Trump administration is seeking to limit the number of immigrants, the president told supporters in an April rally in Michigan that more guest workers should come in and then go home, according to NBC News reports.

Acceptance of guest workers varies, too. Young’s Lobster Pound said their workers have generally felt comfortable over the years, but felt less so when local law enforcement called Young’s to verify that all their H2B visa workers were at the lobster pound when petty thefts occurred in the area.