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Stalled Vote On Seasonal Worker Quota Threatens Local Businesses

Originally Posted: February 01, 2008

Mariah Quinn

  |   10 Comments · Print Article

Local businesses, including many landscaping businesses, are scrambling to find workers as a result of H-2B visa shortages. Photos by Mariah Quinn

Southampton - Hundreds of foreign workers who staffed landscaping companies, hotels, and other small businesses on the East End in summers' past may not be able to return to the area for seasonal employment in 2008 as Congress has yet to pass a bill that would exempt returning seasonal workers from current visa quotas. The resulting worker shortage may force local businesses to cut back on hours of operation and services offered if a solution isn't resolved by spring.

The federal H-2B work visa program allows small businesses to hire non-skilled foreign workers on a temporary basis when no U.S. workers are available. Locally, many businesses used the visa program to fill worker shortages during the high season of the summer months from May to September. Under the Save Our Small Business Act passed in 2005 and renewed in 2006, returning workers were exempted from the quota of 66,000 workers per year, allowing an additional 50,000 to 60,000 temporary workers to enter the country legally as seasonal workers. Local businesses, which often hire the same seasonal workers year after year, benefited from the exemption. However, the Save Our Small Business Act of 2007 has yet to pass a Congressional vote while the national H-2B quota of 66,000 was met as of Jan. 2, leaving small businesses scrambling to find other means of filling staffing gaps as the high season approaches.

"It's become a real political football and we're caught in the middle," Paul Monte, president of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce and chief executive of Gurney's Inn in Montauk, commented. Monte said the working visa program has become embroiled in the fractious immigration debate broiling in Congress. Workers on H-2B visas enter the country legally and can only stay for one year or less.

Nancy Hawke, of Strong Oil in Water Mill, called the
H-2B visa program necessary for small business.

"People think it is an immigration program - it's not," commented Nancy Hawke, a manager at Strong Oil Co. in Water Mill. "It's a great program for small businesses, a great government program." Noting that "multiple services across the board, "use temporary workers" from the H-2B program, Monte said, "If we don't get these people here it will impact the quality of life."

Approximately 134,000 workers entered the U.S. on H-2B visas in 2006, according to the Department of Homeland Security, with the majority coming from Mexico (89,000) and Jamaica (11,000).

The Montauk Chamber of Commerce estimated East End businesses filed 834 applications for H-2B visas in 2007.

John Tortorella, of J. Tortorella Swimming Pools, Inc. of Southampton, who has hired more than 50 workers under the program in years past, said the situation left him without a contingency plan.

"The problem is that we don't have enough laborers unless they are illegal," he said, adding that by tying up the H-2B visa program, "the government is pushing us to do things illegally."

"We are being punished for doing it and following the rules," Tortorella asserted.

Should the H-2B situation go unresolved, "It's going to be devastating," Megan Ganga, business manager for James C. Grimes Land Design, Inc. in Montauk predicted, adding, "Most of the places out here depend completely on these people. Places may have to shut down."

The landscaping company had applied for 11 H-2B visas this year, and generally hired seven to 10 workers annually in years past. Gurney's Inn generally hires 90 workers under the program, Monte reported, with workers coming from Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Slovakia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Argentina. Strong Oil has hired the same four to five workers from Jamaica for the past 10 years. "They know our systems, and I've developed a good relationship with them," Hawke said.

John Tortorella of J. Tortorella Swimming Pools, Inc. hired as many as
50 H-2B workers in years past.

Twenty local business owners attended a meeting at Gurney's Inn in Montauk on Jan. 24 in an effort to come up with alternative ways to find seasonal workers should the H-2B visa exemption not be passed. Businesses may try to recruit more foreign workers on student visas or run recruiting programs in areas of the United States with high levels of unemployment, Monte said. Seasonal employees may also be sought in areas such as Florida, and in ski areas in Colorado and the Northeast, whose low season coincides with the high season on the East End.

A representative from Congressman Tim Bishop's office attended the meeting; Bishop is one of the co-sponsors of the 2007 Save Our Small and Seasonal Business Bill, which would extend the exemption for returning workers permanently. "This week we sent a letter to President Bush, signed by 90 members of Congress, calling on him to take action," said Will Jenkins, Bishop's press secretary. Bishop is also actively working to get the bill out of committee and onto the House floor for a vote.

"We cannot leave small businesses who want to do the right thing with the unacceptable choice of going out of business or hiring illegal workers," Bishop said in a statement. "The President and Congress must resolve to enact smaller-scale remedies in order to alleviate the burden our broken immigration system imposes upon our businesses as we continue to work for broader immigration reform down the road."

The seasonal worker program also benefits year-round U.S. workers, Monte contends. "These seasonal workers give the seasonal business the additional revenue to stay open year-round, and gives them the ability to employ full-time American workers." If businesses are unable to generate more revenue during the summer because of worker shortages, they may have to shut in the winter, he added, resulting in more layoffs.

A change in the way visas were processed last year resulted in back-ups and problems for small businesses, and according to Hawke, the company [Strong Oil] got a taste of what problems might arise this year should there be a lack of temporary workers. "I did not get my workers last year, so last year we reduced our hours and consequently we lost business," she said.

"It ends up hurting my American employees," Hawke continued. "If I'm not open as much as I could be the company is not making the same amount of money," affecting bonuses and salaries for full-time workers. With the possibility of an economic recession looming on the horizon, Gurney's Inn's Monte concurred, "This is not the time to be playing with the H-2B program."

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Guest (feruz mallayev) from brooklyn, ny, usa says::
Apr 28, 2015 9:24 pm

Guest (Andrew ) from Long Island says::
Devorah - You really need to do your homework prior to making ridiculous uneducated statements. You need to open your eyes and understand that each person who uses a guest worker on an H2B visa runs ads in the paper to get college kids or teenagers from less fortunate financial families as you state. The results would amaze you. Typically, you get zero responses. We would welcome any local workers. Every company who uses this program does this legally and by the book. With foreclosures on the rise, gas expected to hit $4.00 a gallon and the economy on the brink of recession, this is no time for congress to play politics with our livelihoods. Congress must act now to save our small businesses.
Apr 3, 2008 12:00 am

Guest (Steve H) from east hampton says::
Give me a crew of Americans who will give me a HONEST days work and can do the job . I'll hire them every summer. I find Americans who are looking for work but they always have an excuse to miss a day for something! Give me Americans and I'll hire them. There were no or few illegals when I was growing up and a lot more Americans doing service work . I tried to get H2B workers and do it the right way and I was denied four workers where does that leave me? (I own a small landscape maintenance company in the Hamptons.)
Feb 27, 2008 12:00 am

Guest (AckRetailer) from Nantucket, MA says::
We need the H2B workers, NOT many young American adults want to do the type of manual labor and tideous jobs that these H2B workers do. They are not taking jobs from Americans, cause the Americans do not want to work these jobs!!
Feb 12, 2008 3:49 pm

Guest (Intelligent American) from New York says::
Legal American you are clearly fooled or you've clearly never been to the East End of Long Island and you are completely unaware of what is at issue here. These businesses are paying taxes. They are doing everything legally. High school and college kids won't dig ditches, make beds in hotels or wash dishes, no matter how much you pay them -- probably because [sic] like you have taught them they don't have to work hard or understand what they're talking about if they just shout louder than the guy next to them and blame their own problems on someone else.
Feb 11, 2008 12:00 am

Guest (Myworkvisa.us Job Board) from Washington, DC says::
Congress should renew the return exemption under the H-2B program. It rewards legal workers who follow the rules. If we don't reward workers who follow the rules, how is the United States going to prevent illegal immigration?
Feb 10, 2008 12:45 am

Guest (marco) from Southampton, NY says::
Dear Devorah, Do your college student will be able to move from the warm house and work in ski resort? Or crab factory? Or to stay all day in the sun lifeguarding? Or cutting grass by the roads where cars drive 100 miles per hour? Or clean toilets in the hotel rooms? Or cook in kitchen under steam all day and wash dishes? Or ....... if you need more [examples] just tell me. I will write you a list of what what H2B workers [do for] work in the USA! And all that just for $6-15 per hour, paying housing for themselves. They pay taxes and respect USA laws, going back in their country after the summer season or after a winter season. This bill is for H2B returnees -- that's workers who work in the states and get back in their country after the job is done! This bill is not a immigration issue, they are returners , not immigrants. Let's not be selfish.
Feb 9, 2008 12:00 am

Guest (DEVORAH) from Montauk says::
I do not feel seasonal workers are exempt from visa quotas. Hire young American adults trying to make their way through college, and need these summer jobs. Or hire a teenager who is not from a fortunate financial family. It is about time we care for Americans living in this country!
Feb 8, 2008 12:00 am

Guest (John Cowen) from Sag Harbor says::
I am a local landscaper, who has been trying to do the right thing by getting my workers here on H-2B seasonal worker visas. However, it really is upsetting to think that those who do things legally get (for lack of a better word) short changed. It doesn't give you any faith in the government. We need to sort this thing out NOW, before the season begins. Sincerely; John Cowen
Feb 8, 2008 12:00 am

Guest (LEGAL AMERICAN) from Illinois says::
“The government is pushing us to do things illegally.” How about hiring Americans? This is a load of crap that they need illegals to do the work. Hire high school or college kids or welfare people for the summer. Or is it that you would have to pay taxes, unemployment, livable wages, etc. Its businesses like this that are undermining our country. Do it legally or don't be in business. I hope the people of these towns boycott those businesses who feel that cannot do with illegals.
Feb 7, 2008 12:00 am


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