Visa issue prompts Mackinac worker shortage

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Some hotel and restaurant owners in the tourist hot spots of Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island say they are suffering from a severe shortage of foreign workers because of a drop in federal visas.

The federal government sets a limit of 66,000 foreign workers annually to get visas from the H-2B program, but it didn’t used to count returning foreign workers against the cap. In late September 2016, Congress refused to renew the exemption for returning workers as Donald Trump campaigned for the White House decrying foreign workers landing American jobs.

But the shift hurt Mackinac Island, which has depended on foreign workers to fill summer jobs for decades. Businesses need more workers than can be attracted from the fewer than 500 people living on the island and 11,000 residents of surrounding Mackinac County.

Lance Green, from Montego Bay, Jamaica, and co-worker Tanashia Howell, from Ocho Rios, Jamaica greet guests at the Hamilton Inn Beachfront in Mackinaw City, August 25, 2017. (Dale G Young/The Detroit News) 2017.

The result has meant overtime or no days off for some existing workers and higher prices for vacationers.

“It’s been a nightmare,” said Joe Lieghio, whose family and investors own eight restaurants and 28 hotels in Mackinaw City. “They take the jobs that the Americans don’t want.”

Lieghio’s hotels and restaurants this year got 160 foreign employees, or about 60 percent of the H-2B workers they normally employ.

“We were lucky to get what we had,” Lieghio said, adding that many cooks haven’t received a day off in six weeks.

He canceled the planned opening of a new downtown Mackinaw City restaurant, cut business hours, opened for only certain meals and raised prices for food and rooms. The financial bottom line “almost definitely” will be hurt, Lieghio said, but he didn’t elaborate.

By contrast, the Grand Hotel is not having problems because, as the island’s largest hotel, it starts the tourist season earlier and can request H-2B workers sooner.

“Grand Hotel is fully staffed for its 2017 season and has not experienced a shortage of labor,” said hotel spokeswoman Julie Rogers.

Some businesses will get relief before the tourism season ends in October because the U.S. Department of Homeland Security last month approved a one-time influx of more foreign workers.

Businesses across the state are struggling to fill openings with an unemployment rate below the national average and at a 17-year low of 3.7 percent, said Dave Murray, a spokesman for the Michigan Talent and Economic Development Department.

The state’s Office for New Americans has “not heard many concerns related specifically about H-2B visas for this year,” Murray added, “but has heard about employers speculating about what might happen next summer as the national immigration discussion continues.”

Possible changes ahead

It is not clear if the president’s hard-line rhetoric on immigration has affected the situation.

A drop in federal visas has meant a severe shortage of foreign workers in Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island, and consequently higher prices for vacationers.

Trump has argued that federal visa programs have been abused to the detriment of American workers. In April, he signed an executive order to help end what he called the “theft of American prosperity” by low-wage immigrant labor. It required a report on possible changes to the H-1B program that annually admits 85,000 foreign workers or those working in specific, high-skilled jobs.

The order didn’t affect H-2B visas that Trump’s companies use to staff their resorts, including Mar-a-Lago, which the president frequently visited as his weekend winter residence.

Some Michigan farmers had said they feared an immigration crackdown could worsen an existing migrant labor shortage if workers grew too fearful to travel to Michigan from Florida, Texas or Mexico. But it’s unclear if Trump has actually affected Michigan agriculture.

“It’s really hard to verify anything,” said John Kran, national legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau. “I think what we’re seeing in terms of trends are very consistent with what we’ve experienced the last several years and even decades.”

Michigan is expecting this year to have hired nearly 6,000 temporary agricultural workers through the H-2A visa program, Kran said. There were more than 4,000 such workers in 2016 and 2,300 in 2015 as more farmers tried to hire workers legally, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor.

The state’s H-2A workers are a sliver of about 45,000 migrant laborers who come to the state every year to pick tomatoes, asparagus and other specialty crops.

“That’s all I depended on a few years ago,” Fred Leitz, a southwest Michigan farmer and Trump supporter, said of undocumented workers. He now relies on legal migrant workers through the H-2A program.

It is expensive and complicated to hire workers through the visa program — as much as $2,500 per person to secure visas and pay for travel plus $12.75 a hour.

“They can’t afford to not have the labor either,” Leitz said.

Extensions granted

Glendon Bulgin, a well-known waiter from Jamaica, is in his 27th year at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. . (Dale G Young/The Detroit News) 2017.

For now, relief is on the way for some tourism-driven businesses. In July, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security approved 15,000 extra H-2B workers for this year because it said American businesses faced “irreparable harm due to a lack of available temporary non-agricultural workers.”

That’s a welcome respite for Darrow’s Family Restaurant in Mackinaw City, where Tracy Darrow said she is asking cooks to work 12-hour days, seven days a week. She was considering not opening for breakfast because none of the 15 mostly Jamaican workers she usually hires came through this year.

Darrow said she expects more workers after the Homeland Security Department’s order.

“Our guys are just about at wits’ end,” Darrow said. “If we hadn’t gotten any help, we were contemplating shutting down one day a week just to give the cooks a day off.”

Mackinac Island’s Harbour View Inn is paying overtime, struggling to get rooms ready for a 3 p.m. check-in time, asking workers to do more than usual and trying not to make it apparent to guests, said hotel general manager Michelle Dean.

But Homeland Security’s move means 14 foreign workers are expected in two weeks at the inn where rooms cost about $250 on a typical in-season night. The small hotel failed to get its requested H-2B workers earlier in the season, she said.

“So there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Dean said.