Visa changes leave resorts scrambling to hire help
In the bustling kitchen of Madden's Resort near Brainerd, the staff is busy getting ready to serve brunch, stacking plates and mixing orange juice.
The work might not seem glamorous. But some of these workers have traveled halfway around the world for these jobs.
Alex Gradinaru is one of them. He has a work visa known as an H-2B. It allows him to come from his home country of Romania every summer to work at Madden's for the past eight years.
"We don't even see it as work," Gradinaru said. "It's more like a vacation and we get paid for it. It's a beautiful place. It's a nice place to work for."
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In the past, it hasn't been difficult for Gradinaru and his co-workers to get approval to return. But that's changed.
"We always did our job. We never had any problems or anything," he said. "So we thought it's going to be easy for us. But it doesn't really look like it right now."
Minnesota resorts are facing a shortage of help this year. That's partly due to the tight labor market. But there's another reason: fewer international workers who usually come here to work during the busy summer season.
The H-2B visa allows foreign seasonal workers to come to the U.S. and work for up to a year. It can be extended for up to three years. The program is used by resorts, hotels, golf courses and other industries that can't find enough local help during the peak season.
Madden's usually employs 58 H-2B workers, said managing director Ben Thuringer.
"We were not able to bring back our returning workers, some of which had been coming to Madden's for about 15 years," Thuringer said. "They're like family to us."
The number of H-2B visas the U.S. grants every year is capped at 66,000. In the past, Congress has granted an exemption for returning workers. But for this year, Congress didn't pass an exemption, and the cap was reached in March.
That leaves businesses like Breezy Point Resort north of Brainerd in a tight spot. Vice President David Spizzo applied for H-2B workers this year for the first time. He was hoping for 25, but got four.
"Housekeeping, kitchens, shuttle drivers — any job that is seasonal we are finding extreme difficulty trying to fill at this point," Spizzo said.
Kevin Daley is filling several of those jobs at Breezy Point. He came to the U.S. last year for the first time after working more than 25 years in hospitality in Jamaica.
"I just wanted a chance to see what working outside of Jamaica was like — getting to interact a little bit more with the foreign countries and seeing what it's like," said the 37-year-old Daley.
Daley extended his visa by working in Florida over the winter months instead of returning to Jamaica. He said he misses his family back home, but knows other workers who went home to visit their families and now can't get back into the U.S.
"I miss my family, because I've been away for a little bit over seven months now," he said. "I had to choose to go back home or stay."
The budget agreement Congress passed last month allows the secretary of homeland security to issue more H-2B visas. But so far, he hasn't acted.
The H-2B and other visa programs have been criticized for allowing big businesses to hire foreign labor at the expense of American workers.
But resorts say they rely on the foreign workers to help during their peak months when there simply aren't enough people in the community willing to take on the seasonal jobs.
Just how many H-2B workers are in Minnesota isn't clear. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services doesn't track H-2B visas on a state-by-state basis.
Foreign workers make up a relatively small but essential part of the state's tourism workforce, said Dan McElroy, president of Hospitality Minnesota.
McElroy said he understands the call from organized labor and other groups to hire American workers first, adding, "We're trying."
"These are peak season challenges," he said. "It's been difficult to get enough people who want to work in northern Minnesota or the Iron Range or the North Shore for summer jobs."
When Breezy Point Resort held a local job fair in 2008, it attracted about 300 people. This year, just 12 people showed up.
"There's simply not enough people in our community that are willing to take on the seasonal jobs," Spizzo said.
If they can't fill the openings with H-2B workers, Spizzo says Breezy Point might need to scale back on some the services it offers guests.
"I'm crossing my fingers that it will help us," he said. "Honestly I just don't know how else we're going to operate if we can get the relief. It's going to be a challenge."