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Increase in visa workers good news for Maine tourism businesses

The Spruce Point Inn is one of many Maine tourist businesses that employ foreign workers on H2B visas.

BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine — On April 1, the Spruce Point Inn was quiet and a bit chilly. After being closed for winter, as usual, it will take a few weeks and a lot of work to have the popular 81-room facility gleaming and ready for visitors by mid-May.

But general manager Harper Sibley said they should have more help with that work than they did last year. 

The Spruce Point Inn is one of many Maine tourist businesses that employ foreign workers on H2B visas. Before the pandemic, Sibley said their 120-person staff was evenly divided between Maine workers and visa workers. 

On Thursday, responding to requests from Maine and other states, the federal government announced it will allow an additional 35,000 H2Bs for the coming six months, bringing the total nationwide to about 68,000, according to Greg Dugal of Hospitality Maine, a tourist-industry organization that represents hotels and restaurants.

“This number would more than double what we got last year," Dugal said. "Not what we wanted but what we got."

Maine and most other states saw a drastic reduction in foreign workers in 2021, largely because of COVID and travel restrictions.

As a result, Maine only had a little over a thousand of those workers, about half of what the state typically sees, Dugal said.

That shortage, along with a reduction in the number of local people seeking work, led to tremendous staffing challenges for tourist businesses. Many restaurants and retailers, in particular, were forced to cut hours and even close some days because of short staffing.

At Spruce Point Inn, Sibley said they had the same problems.

“The service level you want to provide requires a certain number of staff, and last year we didn’t have the right number of staff, and it was a service challenge,” he said.

The business began working on recruiting this year’s staff in November 2021, applied as early as possible for H2B visas, and has been approved for 50, according to Sibley. 

That number, he indicated, should allow them to have a relatively normal staff, but he plans to seek some of the additional visas announced Thursday as well.

Sibley and Dugal said there are still questions unanswered about the process, and there can still be problems getting all of those foreign workers to actually reach Maine, because of the process they must go through in their home countries.

Dugal is encouraged by the expansion, he said, but still cautious about predicting a total end to staffing issues.

“Before the pandemic, we were looking at 2,500 to 3,000 visa workers in Maine [each year]. I would assume from what I know, and what I’ve seen [that] this year you will see more than that 2,500 to 3,000. You will see close to 3,500," Dugal said.

But, he added, there are still the inherent uncertainties of how many will actually get to Maine and how soon.

The businesses are required to pay for travel and provide housing for the workers, which is always a challenge in tourist communities. Sibley said the inn has a dormitory-type facility where those workers will live.

Despite the uncertainties, Dugal and Sibley said the increase in H2Bs is a good thing for Maine’s tourism industry and should help businesses have an easier year than they did last year.

“But I must say, we always prefer to have Maine resident employees first, and we’re working with some of the local high schools to bring in interns, with juniors and seniors, to see what the hospitality industry is like,” Sibley added.

Both agreed that with the continuing problems of affordable housing and the statewide need for workers in almost every business, foreign workers are likely to remain an essential part of the tourism business.

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