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Shortage of Foreign Visas Hurting Small Restaurants

Kitchen staff gather around after a day on the line.

With the summer tourist season approaching, many restaurants are scrambling to staff up and finding it difficult because of a shortage of visas for temporary foreign workers.

The United States caps the number of H-2B visas, which are slated for temporary blue-collar nonagricultural workers, at 66,000 per year. The 2017 omnibus spending bill passed this week calls for doubling that amount, but it doesn’t mandate a deadline for the Department of Homeland Security to grant the documents. New visas might not be issued until after the 4th of July, well into the summer season.

Already, small business owners are feeling the squeeze. “We will find a way to make it work because we always do,” Jena Young, owner of Side Street Cafe in Bar Harbor, Maine, told The Wall Street Journal. She said she plans to pay out more overtime and work as a hostess (while tending to her 7-month-old girl).

Many owners are searching for H-2B workers already in the country—it’s easier to extend a visa for those currently working in the United States.

Opponents of increasing the number of H-2B visas say it hurts American workers and drives down wages. But under the rules, employers must advertise positions to Americans first. And with unemployment the lowest it's been for a decade, plus the fact that college students return to school before the season ends, business owners say they need the H-2B workers to meet their staffing needs.

The spending bill also eliminated the provision that allowed overseas workers to return to country in subsequent years without being counted against the cap.

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