Help Wanted: In pandemic, worry about finding summer workers

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Bartender Denis Angelov, of Provincetown, Mass., left, serves sparking wine to Julie Skaller, left, and her husband David Skaller, right, both of Brewster, N.Y., at Tin Pan Alley restaurant, Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Provincetown. Hotels, restaurants and other businesses in tourist destinations are warning that hiring challenges during the coronavirus pandemic could force them to pare back operating hours or curtail services just as theyre eyeing a bounce-back summer. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

BOSTON – The owner of seafood restaurants on Cape Cod has eliminated lunch service and delayed the opening of some locations because his summertime influx of foreign workers hasn’t arrived yet.

More than a thousand miles away, a Jamaican couple is fretting about whether the rest of their extended family can join them for the seasonal migration to the popular beach destination south of Boston that’s been a crucial lifeline for them for decades.

As vaccinated Americans start to get comfortable traveling again, popular summer destinations are anticipating a busy season. But hotel, restaurant and retail store owners warn that staffing shortages exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic could force them to limit occupancy, curtail hours and services or shut down facilities entirely just as they’re starting to bounce back from a grim year.

The problem, they say, is twofold: The annual influx of seasonal foreign workers has stalled in places because of the pandemic. Businesses have also struggled to attract U.S. workers, even as many have redoubled their efforts to hire locally amid high unemployment.

“It’s the ‘Hunger Games’ for these employers, fighting for getting these guest workers into the country while also trying everything they can to recruit domestically,” said Brian Crawford, an executive vice president for the American Hotel and Lodging Association, a Washington, D.C.-based industry group. “It’s really frustrating. They’re trying to regain their footing after this disastrous pandemic but they just can’t catch a break.”

Earlier this month, President Joe Biden let expire a controversial ban on temporary worker visas such as the J-1 program for students and the H-2B program for nonagricultural laborers imposed by former President Donald Trump.

But American embassies and consulates remain closed or severely short-staffed in many countries. The U.S. has also imposed restrictions on travelers from countries including the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil and South Africa because of the emergence of new virus variants or rising COVID-19 cases.

Advocates for the J-1 program, which brings in about 300,000 foreign students annually, urged the State Department in a letter Thursday to exempt the applicants from the travel bans and provide other relief so they can start their summer jobs. Ilir Zherka, head of the Alliance for International Exchange, which sent the letter along with more than 500 supporting groups and companies, argued the J-1 program doesn't just benefit local economies, but also helps strengthen national security by promoting understanding and appreciation of U.S. culture.