ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
After a year of struggling to survive, hotels and restaurants are bracing for a new challenge - finding enough help for a busy summer. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, the pandemic is delaying visas for the foreign guest workers that businesses depend on and making it harder to hire locally.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: It's exactly what everyone's been waiting for.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Glad that this place is open again.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm very happy to get out.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Laughter) It's like free at last.
SMITH: At the Pilot House restaurant on Cape Cod, customers are as thrilled to finally get back out as hotels and restaurants are to get them back in.
BOB JARVIS: Oh, yeah, right off the bat, it was busy right from the start.
SMITH: But owner Bob Jarvis says he's so short-staffed, he's closing two days a week, giving up some 20% of much needed revenue.
JARVIS: There's nobody to do these jobs, and it's starting to get ultra-desperate.
SMITH: Jarvis is one of many who rely on seasonal foreign workers who come on what are called H-2B visas. They're perennially in high demand. And even with extras allowed this year by the Biden administration, businesses say it's not enough. Jarvis got just about a third of what he needs and will pay them all time and a half to work overtime.
JARVIS: It's definitely not profitable. It's just a really bad situation right now.
SMITH: For the crew as well, including Jason Brissett, one of the H-2B kitchen workers from Jamaica.
JASON BRISSETT: We can pull down maybe, like, 80 hours a week. It's really difficult. You don't want to overwork. You know what I mean? You still want to go home back to your family and not die on the line. You know what I mean?
ERIN TIERNAN: It's horrendous.
SMITH: Erin Tiernan and her husband John are feeling it, too, at their two stores and hotel on Martha's Vineyard. They're advertising as far away as Utah and West Virginia. They're subsidizing housing for employees and even working with colleges to create internships for students. But still, she says, nothing.
TIERNAN: My husband is the only employee at the hotel currently. He has no front desk staff. We have a 10-year-old who is going to get a crash course in running a register and (laughter) stripping rooms.
SMITH: Tiernan says the J-1 student visas they rely on are at a standstill. Part of the issue is that a Trump administration halt on those visas only recently expired, so processing started late. On top of that, pandemic restrictions have stalled work at U.S. embassies and consulates.
JEANNE SHAHEEN: There's a backlog, and we've got to get these visas expedited and get people into the country where we need these workers.
SMITH: U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen from New Hampshire says seasonal businesses around the nation are all in the same predicament.
SHAHEEN: I've talked to at least three Cabinet secretaries and the White House at this point, all of whom recognize the challenge and are working hard to address it.
SMITH: But it's not just the visas. Some American workers are still anxious about COVID. Some have left their grueling hospitality jobs for more stable, 9-to-5 work. And given the extra government benefits, some are content to just stay home.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Why would you expose yourself to the risks of working in close quarters, serving people food and drinks, when you could just make more money on unemployment?
SMITH: This longtime restaurant worker asked that his name not be used for fear of hurting his future employment prospects.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Sometimes, it's not really worth the money that you get when you're leaving a place at 3 in the morning, worn out and tired and sticky, you know? Like, I make enough staying home.
SMITH: That's frustrating to many businessowners, like Amy Ward, who owns a boutique in the Berkshires and can't lure back longtime employees.
AMY WARD: I hate to say it, but people should be encouraged to get back to work. I don't think there should be extra incentives to stay home right now.
SMITH: But as others see it, if people are doing better on unemployment, it only means they were underpaid to start with. Daniel Costa, an immigration researcher at the liberal think tank the Economic Policy Institute, says businesses should be doing more to hire domestically.
DANIEL COSTA: I do think we should take what they say with a grain of salt. And every time you hear, you know, I can't find any workers, you should add to the end of that - at the wage that I want to pay because you're talking about very low-wage jobs.
BILL KEATING: In this instance here, that's simply not the case.
SMITH: Massachusetts Congressman Bill Keating represents Cape Cod, where even mid-level kitchen jobs can pay $20 an hour. Seasonal guest workers were always critical, Keating says, but especially this year.
KEATING: Well, we invested a lot of taxpayer money to keep businesses afloat. I would hate to see that investment jeopardized.
SMITH: Or, he says, after all restaurants and hotels have been through, he'd hate to see even more of them go under just because they don't have staff.
Tovia Smith, NPR News.
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