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Cape & Islands Seasonal Businesses Watch and Worry as Worker Visas Remain Uncertain

Murdick's Fudge website
Murdick's Fudge employees

With spring less than two weeks away, seasonal businesses on the Cape and Islands are in limbo, wondering if they’ll be able to get enough help for summer.

Former President Trump’s visa ban expires at the end of March, but that won’t fill all the jobs.

At Murdick’s Fudge on Martha’s Vineyard, summer visitors watch the crew pour the molten confection onto a slab of marble and work it to just the right consistency.

That takes skill, and general manager Mike McCourt doesn’t know whether his most experienced workers will be able to return.

“I have three fudge makers that are in Jamaica, and it's a process that can take up to a year and a half to train,” he said.

His cafe manager also lives in Jamaica.

Cape and Islands businesses rely heavily on two visa programs — J-1, for college students, and H-2B, for other workers, many of whom return year after year.

Although Trump’s visa ban is about to expire, which solves the problem for J-1 students and some of the H-2Bs, federal law caps the number of H-2B visas each year. And with the cap, Murdick’s Fudge is out of luck.

“They have this lottery system,” McCourt said, “and if you don't get in A or B, you're pretty much on the outside looking in, unless they add to the cap. And we got picked C.”

There’s a chance the cap could be raised — but in the meantime, it’s wait and worry.

“It's a little unfair that your business is basically put in a gamble situation, and you have to cross your fingers and — a lot of sleepless nights, to say the least,” he said.

Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, said it’s a misconception that Americans could take those jobs.

“Ultimately, the truth — the hard, cold truth — is we don't have the available workforce on Martha's Vineyard to fill the 2,000-3,000 jobs that become available,” she said. “We simply don’t.”

She said American college students aren't available in the months they’re needed most. Many go back to school in mid-August, far too early for a tourist season that stretches into October.

Gardella said the most plentiful jobs, in hospitality and landscaping, are unattractive to retirees and sometimes not legally open to high school students.

“No one is clamoring to take those jobs,” she said.

Nor could most people afford to live on the island for what the summer help earns. Many seasonal employers have to offer housing to make it feasible for workers to come.

A combination of federal and state rules and prevailing wages sets entry-level pay at Murdick’s at about $14 an hour for H-2B workers.

Congressman Bill Keating’s office said Congress has authorized the Secretary of Homeland Security to raise this year’s cap on H-2B visas from 66,000 to 116,000.

Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was just sworn in February 2nd, and to date, he has not acted.

Keating has advised businesses not to wait in making their plans for the summer.

“As we open up more and more, we want to make sure ... they have the full complement of people necessary to indeed open up,” he said.

Meanwhile, speculation about a post-vaccine travel boom is just warming up, and seasonal businesses are watching and hoping.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.