PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s tourism industry could be short thousands of workers this summer if the federal government keeps in place limits on seasonal foreign workers.

Through March, Maine employers had 919 positions certified to be filled by foreign workers and about a third of those are in bureaucratic limbo.

That’s because getting certification is just the first step in the process. It’s immigration officials that set the cap on new foreign workers. Businesses have to apply to them after getting Labor Department certification.

If word of change does come from Washington, it sounds the starting gun for attorneys like Marcus Jaynes to get their clients’ applications in the mail.

Attorneys like Jaynes are at the front lines in the fight to clear the backlog, which in Maine is full of tourist-industry businesses wondering how they’re going to staff up for a summer rush starting Memorial Day weekend and growing as public schools close.

More and more of those businesses are looking to foreign workers to fill those positions.

According to federal statistics, Maine businesses were certified to bring in almost twice as many foreign workers in the first three months of 2017 as in 2016. And most of the state’s applications come in later, for the summer season.

The spike in demand clashes with newly enforced federal limits on foreign workers coming into the country for non-agricultural jobs, on H-2B visas. Those jobs include positions as housekeepers or cooks at some of Maine’s key tourist destinations.

Meanwhile, Maine’s unemployment rate hit its lowest point ever in April after more than a year of holding steady at low rates.

In an April email, Glenn Mills, the Maine Department of Labor’s chief economist, wrote that the consistency of low unemployment for Maine during the past 16 months “is historically unusual, previously occurring only two other periods,” from 1987 to 1989 and 1999 to 2001.

Annual uncertainty

Jaynes, a Portland-based immigration attorney, said anyone who hadn’t started the second step — applying to immigration officials — by the time the cap was hit in March was likely out of luck. And Maine’s demand for foreign workers on the latter end of the second quarter, which starts April 1, doesn’t help in conforming with those deadlines.

“When it comes to this time of year, we all kind of scratch our heads and wonder why do we keep signing on to work within this program because there’s so much uncertainty,” Jaynes said.

According to federal statistics, at least 302 positions in Maine were certified after immigration officials declared the cap. And that number is certainly ballooning. In 2016, two-thirds of all the certified jobs got approval during the second quarter of the year, between April and June.

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That crush of second-quarter applications remains stalled. Nationally, at least 13,725 were certified by labor officials after immigration authorities declared the cap.

The currently approved applications don’t yet reflect requests from businesses such as the Pentagoet Inn in Castine, whose owners went on a radio show hosted by U.S. Sen. Angus King to detail their predicament.

“What we’re seeing in Castine and on the entire Blue Hill peninsula is that businesses are cutting back on services and what they can offer because they don’t have the right staff,” co-owner Julie Van de Graff said.

[ With tourist season around the corner, Maine’s hospitality industry is facing a crisis]

She and her husband Jack Burke have yet to open the hotel’s adjacent restaurant for want of five qualified cooks and housekeepers, she said. Their company, WC Inc., qualified last year for six foreign workers in applications approved in late April and early May.

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The figures show why King, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and the state’s top tourism industry official are pleading for the federal government to raise a cap to allow in more foreign workers for the range of jobs that pay between $9 and just under $15 per hour.

A short-term spending plan passed earlier this year allowed the Department of Homeland Security to raise that cap, but the department has not approved the increase. Separately, a rule expired in September that allowed returning workers not to count against the cap.

[King, Collins support bill to reform H-2B visa process for seasonal help from abroad]

Steve Hewins, the head of the Maine Restaurant Association and the Maine Innkeepers Association, said during King’s radio broadcast that about 10 percent of the state’s hospitality jobs are filled with foreign temporary workers.

What are these jobs?

The H-2B program requires employers to document recruiting steps taken locally as a way of proving they couldn’t fill the positions and need the temporary help from abroad.

For the upcoming tourist season, the bulk of those jobs are as maids or housekeepers, positions that pay an average of $10.26 per hour across all of the approved employers in the state.

By the end of the first quarter of 2016, Maine employers got Labor Department permission to bring in 210 foreign workers for maid and housekeeping jobs. That number rose to 321 this year.

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The jobs are also concentrated geographically along the coast, particularly in the south. A separate batch of jobs related to the maple harvest started earlier this year around Jackman.

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Critics of the guest worker program argue that it allows foreign workers to take jobs away from potential domestic employees. A Buzzfeed investigation found cases in which agricultural employers under the related H-2A visa program bent program rules to show they couldn’t fill the jobs with workers in the state.

For the H-2B program, employers are required to establish that they cannot find U.S. employees “who are able, willing, qualified, and available to do the temporary work” and that the program won’t depress wages or working conditions of other U.S. workers.

Advocates of the program argue that’s not the case, particularly for smaller hospitality businesses in the state, where it says the ability to scale up quickly in the summer helps retain year-round jobs in the highly seasonal industry.

Jack Burke at the Pentagoet said the Castine inn faces regional demographic challenges finding temporary workers and that the applications and process itself costs them about $24,000 before any workers arrive.

“If we could find people local, it would make no sense for us to hire foreign staff,” Burke said.

Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.