Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Doug Winkler is concerned that he will not be able to find the lifeguards and pool cleaners he needs this summer to run his pool-manage-ment business.

“There just aren’t enough Americans to go around,” said Mr. Winkler, president of Hyattsville-based Winkler Pool Management Inc.

Normally, he supplements his staff of about 1,000 employees with 80 foreign workers in the summer. They earn $7.50 per hour plus a housing subsidy.

This year, when he applied to the federal government for H-2B visas for the foreigners, he got none.

“Our application wasn’t accepted because the cap had been reached,” Mr. Winkler said.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) cut off applications for the H-2B temporary-visa program on March 9, when the agency knew it would meet its annual cap of 66,000 foreign workers.

The H-2B nonimmigrant program allows employers to hire foreign workers for temporary nonagricultural work, which can include onetime jobs, seasonal or intermittent labor.

This year was the first time the agency stopped accepting applications for the program before the end of a fiscal year. Businesses from hotels in Rhode Island to the fishing industry in Alaska suddenly found themselves short-handed and struggling to fill temporary jobs.

American workers tend to shun the temporary jobs either because of low pay, few benefits or the short-term employment opportunity, employers say.

Among the companies scrambling for alternatives is Phillips Seafood Restaurants Inc. in Ocean City.

“We’ll try to train employees to do multiple tasks so we’ll have more overtime than we’ve had in the past,” said Paul Wall, vice president of the company, which operates three restaurants and a hotel in Ocean City.

Phillips Seafood Restaurants tries to hire about 130 foreign employees under the H-2B program each summer. This year, he is uncertain whether he will get any.

They typically begin work in the spring and stay through October. College and high-school students begin work only after classes let out and then return to their studies in August.

So far, Mr. Wall says his company’s efforts to find tourist-season help have been disappointing.

“We are recruiting more heavily, we’re holding job fares, we’re visiting college campuses,” Mr. Wall said. “It just seems like they are not available.”

Chris Bentley, a spokesman for USCIS, which does some of the functions of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, said this year the agency received more than 100,000 applications from employers for the temporary visas.

He said his office has not monitored the trends behind the program’s surge in popularity. But labor experts say it is a good solution for seasonal employers who can’t lure locals to take temporary jobs without benefits.

The H-2B program is usually a last option, as employers who apply for the foreign workers first must recruit within the United States. Foreign workers are paid the same wages that Americans would be paid.

“It’s not even that the positions are bad,” said Gregory Siskind, an immigration lawyer in Memphis, Tenn. “An American may be suitable for it, but how do you get someone looking for a job in Florida up to a temporary job in Colorado?”

He noted the H-2B visa has become more popular among employers in recent years, but the cap has remained constant since the program began in the early 1990s, despite a growing economy.

Gary Fields, a labor economics professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., added that businesses are complaining because the “government has cut back on the number of workers who can obtain foreign visas” because of increased security after the September 11 attacks.

Seasonal businesses across the country are feeling the pinch.

The 7 million-employee construction and supply industry increases its work force by 11 percent between winter and summer.

“It’s definitely going to be a problem in some industries,” said Geoff Burr, lobbyist for the Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade group for construction contractors.

Pennie Beach, co-owner of the Basin Harbor Club in Vergennes, Vt., said she is missing 32 of her 65 housekeepers and food service workers.

“Here are all these people depending on us for their jobs,” Miss Beach said, noting many of her staffers have been returning for seven years.

She has tried to hire local employees but, she said, tech workers recently laid off from IBM in Vermont just “weren’t lining up to be chamber maids.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, has introduced legislation to raise the cap placed on the number of H-2B workers. An identical bill is pending in the House.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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