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Why your summer getaway is staffed by foreign workers

July 27, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
At the tip of Cape Cod, the iconic summer getaway Provincetown has a small year-round population that swells when the weather gets nice, welcoming an estimated 4 to 5 million tourists every year. Businesses there depend on foreign workers willing to work just a few months of the year. But this year, the number of available visas is way down. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s that time of the year when many folks flock to beaches, resort towns and weekend getaways. Those communities can be quite dependent on foreign workers to help staff them through the summer season.

But this year has a different kind of pressure point, as the Trump administration has pushed for some big changes on immigration rules.

Economics correspondent Paul Solman has a look at the impact of this supply-and-demand story. It’s part of his weekly series, Making Sense.

PAUL SOLMAN: Ah, the iconic seaside summer getaway Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod.

A single mom prison guard in New York state, Joy McNulty, got away here to bring up her four kids in a safe place and bought a tiny restaurant, the Lobster Pot.

Forty years later, the family and about 100 hundred employees serve 1,200 to 1,300 meals a day during peak season, prepared in the back of the House by six-month-a-year immigrants from Jamaica. McNulty insisted I find out for myself for how many years they had been coming, 21 years, 22 years.

You’re the new champ, 24. That beats everybody.

Provincetown has a year-round population of just under 3,000, which swells to 10,000 in the summer. Add the estimated four to five million tourists that visit the Cape every year, and you have got the poster child for peak demand.

JOY MCNULTY, Owner, Lobster Pot: How do you run a business where all your kids work for you, all your grandchildren work for you, and I don’t know if I can open next year? How could you do that?

PAUL SOLMAN: The problem is getting Americans, of any vintage, to do the back of the housework. So businesses here rely on foreigners, says Jane Nichols Bishop, known as Mama Visa to the workers.

JANE NICHOLS BISHOP, Owner, Peak Season Workforce: In a seasonal economy, there are usually not enough American workers to fill all of the jobs. They’re not year-round jobs. So the Congress allowed something called an H-2B.

PAUL SOLMAN: Which allows half-year work if no one else can be found, and must be renewed annually, for temporary positions like hotel housekeepers and restaurant workers. In the past, Congress has made 66,000 of these visas available annually nationwide.

And workers with previous H-2Bs, like almost everyone here, could return without being counted against that limit, but not this summer.

JANE NICHOLS BISHOP: Congress didn’t pass a returning worker exemption in the continuing resolution to fund the government, which is where it’s always been. And because they didn’t do that, the number of visas available was greatly restricted.

So there are not enough visas for all the employers to bring in their temporary work force.

PAUL SOLMAN: The Department of Homeland Security did add another 15,000 visas last week. But with the exemption gone, the total number of H-2Bs is way down. And with employers now having to prove irreparable harm to get one of the additional visas, the paperwork that might, or might not, get a worker in has mushroomed.

What an irony for a supposedly anti-red tape administration, says Congressman Bill Keating, who represents the Cape, though, of course, he’s from a district even bluer than its fish.

REP. BILL KEATING, D-Mass.: The fix is staring us right in the face. It’s just raise the cap on returning workers. We have done it for the last 11 years. It works.

PAUL SOLMAN: But they just did it now.

REP. BILL KEATING: No, they didn’t. They created a whole new series of regulations and requirements that would scare any small business person into not using this because of politics.

PAUL SOLMAN: Really?

JOY MCNULTY: It’s impossible to run a business when you don’t know if you’re getting 43 of your 96 people. The rest of them are all Americans. This year, we were open six weeks late. Last week, we opened six weeks late. Next year, we may not open at all. We don’t know.

PAUL SOLMAN: Gui Yingling got none of the requested 26 H-2B workers for nearby Bubala’s By the Bay.

GUI YINGLING, Owner, Bubala’s By the Bay: It’s been next impossible. We have had to close days. We have had to shorten hours.

PAUL SOLMAN: And a corollary problem, say restaurateurs like Yingling and Mac Hay of Mac’s Seafood, is that if and when they close:

MAC HAY, Owner, Mac’s Seafood: I would have to lay off way more than half of the work force that I have now.

PAUL SOLMAN: American workers.

MAC HAY: An American work force.

PAUL SOLMAN: And, look, they say, it’s not for lack of trying, to recruit natives, that is. In fact, the H-2B application requires employers to offer the jobs locally.

JOY MCNULTY: I advertise on the Internet. I advertise in every job fair. We advertise in every newspaper. Everyone on the entire Cape knows that we’re all looking for help. There’s nobody here. They will not take seasonal dishwashing and cook jobs for anything.

PAUL SOLMAN: But wait a second, counters H-2B skeptic Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies.

JESSICA VAUGHAN, Center for Immigration Studies: I don’t think there’s any such thing as a job an American won’t do. There are millions of workers in the United States who are not employed, and we need to find a way to match them up with some of these opportunities as well.

PAUL SOLMAN: Employers just aren’t trying hard enough, Vaughan insists, while driving down wages, and maybe even working conditions. More and more, she says, teens and those with a high school diploma at best:

JESSICA VAUGHAN: Employers should look to those workers first before they take the easy route out, and bring in workers from overseas.

MAC HAY: I have no issue, no problem. I would prefer to do that. Trying to bring workers from Jamaica or Mexico is incredibly challenging, incredibly expensive.

PAUL SOLMAN: Mac Hay worked in kitchens on the Cape since he was 12, now owns six businesses, restaurants and seafood markets. The pay?

MAC HAY: A dishwasher is $12.50 to a cook can make $17, $18 an hour, plus overtime.

PAUL SOLMAN: Not bad. So why aren’t these summer jobs for students?

MAC HAY: The majority of them leave August 12 or August 13 or August 14. We have a 10-week season. It runs through Labor Day. I can’t lose more than half my work force with three weeks to go, with 30 percent of my season left.

PAUL SOLMAN: And nonstudents who are un- or under-employed?

MAC HAY: Americans, they don’t want to relocate their life for six months. They don’t want to move down, but if they’re willing to do it, I’m more than happy to hire them.

PAUL SOLMAN: Like Joy McNulty at the Lobster Pot, Mac Hay utterly depends on visa workers. Egan Bonny’s been with him for 10 seasons.

EGAN BONNY, H-2B Visa Worker: I do cleaning, clean the restaurant and do all kind of jobs which no American kids would come and do. This grease job here, fill the grease job. No young kid’s going to come around and do this stuff. Keep everything nice, clean the bathroom.

PAUL SOLMAN: Because they’re spoiled?

EGAN BONNY: They’re spoiled. Seriously, they’re spoiled.

PAUL SOLMAN: Really? There is no wage at which they would do these jobs?

GUI YINGLING: I have hired every employee who has tried to walk through the door. I have advertised. Most of them don’t show up, is the truth, once I hire them. It’s pretty incredible. I have had 17 employees no-show this season, after being hired.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, we did run into one underemployed American worker.

So what are you doing this summer?

CLAIRE VAUGHAN, Student: I’m working in a church nursery every Sunday.

PAUL SOLMAN: And you have applied for other jobs.

CLAIRE VAUGHAN: Yes, that’s right.

PAUL SOLMAN: And?

CLAIRE VAUGHAN: I have not heard back from any of them.

PAUL SOLMAN: Seventeen-year old Claire Vaughan lives about two hours from the Cape.

PAUL SOLMAN: So now, why aren’t you here?

CLAIRE VAUGHAN: I didn’t know there were jobs here. I had no idea you could do that.

PAUL SOLMAN: Claire Vaughan happens to be the daughter of our immigration skeptic.

CLAIRE VAUGHAN: Now that I know about it, I will definitely look.

PAUL SOLMAN: But it turned that she, like most students, would have to leave before the season was over. And her parents didn’t want her living on the Cape.

And so we come to the bottom line. Bubala’s is down 10 percent and may actually lose money this year. Mac Hay worries about next year.

And the Lobster Pot? In the six weeks it had to close, it bought a lot fewer lobsters from local fishermen, hired fewer Americans for fewer hours.

JOY MCNULTY: All of the Americans are out of work for six extra weeks. The state doesn’t get the taxes, the vendors don’t get the work, nothing happens here, and the town collapses. But my people have been with me for 20, 25 years, a lot of them. What harm is that to anybody? We just want to run a restaurant.

PAUL SOLMAN: For the PBS NewsHour, this is economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting from Cape Cod.

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