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00000177-ba84-d5f4-a5ff-bbfc9b3e0000For nearly 400 years, people have migrated to this part of the world in search of work, sometimes in search of a new home. In this series, WCAI’s Sarah Reynolds brings together voices and stories of some of the immigrants in our region, looking at why they’ve come here and why they stay.

Late Arriving H2B Workers Help Local Businesses Face the Remaining Season

Patrick Flanary
Yolando Tomayo (center) was delayed four months returning to her job at Hot Chocolate Sparrow, in Orleans, because she was unable to get an H2B visa earlier in the season.

Summer may be all but over, but it’s only recently that some of the region’s regular summer workforce has arrived.

That’s because Congress waited until mid-season to pass what’s known as the Returning Workers Exemption, which allows temporary seasonal workers holding H2B visas to return.

It wasn’t until August 23rd that Yolanda Tamayo returned to her job at Hot Chocolate Sparrow in Orleans.

It’s her 10th season traveling from here to work from the Philippines, where she owns a family catering business.

“We are here to help, to fill the job,”  Tomayo said. “And we’re doing our job well, because we love our job.”

But she’s four months late getting back. And she’s not alone; many who usually come from places like Jamaica and Mexico didn’t arrive on-Cape until just before Labor Day Weekend.

“As far as I am concerned, we are also helping the economy and the government of this country,” Tomayo said.

Back in April, on the Cape and Islands only 300 H-2B visas had been granted, down from the usual 3,000.

This summer only 42 employers were cleared to fly back their usual help.

That left some small business without workers and frustrated.

“They set it up with a poison pill,” said Ron Smolowitz, who owns Coonamessett Farm in East Falmouth.

“Donald Trump employs 1,300,” Smolowitz continued. “He managed to get all his. That’s a different economic situation than a small employer that employs three or four workers.”

That’s all Smolowitz needed: four workers.

And he’s always depended on them, since 1996.

Without them this year, he was forced to shut down the café on his farm—and lost about twenty percent of his revenue.  

At the Nantucket Inn, manager Scott Thomas says his usual twenty Jamaican workers didn’t make the cut, either.

And his season runs through Columbus Day Weekend.

“It’s not like we pulled workers out of thin air to make it all come together,” Thomas said.

All summer, he was down pool attendants, shuttle drivers, housekeepers—about a third of his usual staff. In a pinch, he was able to supplement with some Eastern European students carrying J-1 visas. But it wasn’t enough.

“We did not have a lot of time to put in a Plan B, so I’m paying a tremendous amount of overtime,” Thomas said.

Many employers say they can’t attract American workers no matter what they do. Between aggressive advertising and offering competitive wages, replies are few. And students seem to go back to school earlier every year.

The Department of Homeland Security raised the visa cap this summer, but  it required something new of employers who wanted

H-2B workers: to qualify, they had to prove they would suffer irreparable harm without them.

Back at Hot Chocolate Sparrow, co-owner Maya Sparrow said she was fortunate enough to welcome back her eight H-2B workers.  “I think we were just kind of figuring it out as we went along and hoping for the best,” she said. “And just trying not to give up hope.”  

While it’s premature to forecast the impact on the Cape’s economy, business owners are already racing to file their 2018 paperwork ahead of what might happen next year.