Everywhere you look these days it seems there are signs proclaiming, “Help Wanted.” Whether it’s sit-down restaurants or fast food places, convenience stores or motels, everyone is looking for workers. And, while seasonal businesses struggle every year to find summer help, this year many are saying the worker shortage has become critical and may result in shorter seasons and hours, curtailed service and ultimately loss of revenue.
Many are blaming the shortage in large part on cutbacks in the number of visas offered to foreign workers though the U.S. Department of Labor’s H-2B guest worker program. Kim Reifschneider, manager of the Holiday Inn Express in Custer oversees the guest worker program for the five motels and campground operated by Custer Hospitality. She says she put in for approximately 50 H-2B workers this year but has received only about half of them.
“I think they are releasing more visas but not nearly enough,” she said.
Meanwhile Cherish Baker, owner of Baker’s Bakery, said the H-2B worker cap has affected her so severely she is having to close at 11 a.m. on Tuesdays and may have to shut down for the season before the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup at the end of September.
“I only contract for cooks,” said Baker, noting that she had planned to bring back three foreign men who worked for her the past few seasons, but there were not enough visas to go around. Those H-2B workers usually work at Baker’s from April through October.
Now, she said, while she has enough help to do jobs like bussing tables and washing dishes, the loss of those skilled adult workers means the responsibility for making breakfast and lunch falls on her.
According to the Department of Labor, the H-2B nonimmigrant program permits employers to temporarily hire nonimmigrants to perform nonagricultural labor or services in the United States. The employment must be of a temporary nature for a limited period of time such as a one-time occurrence, seasonal need, peakload need or intermittent need. Many H-2B workers are employed in the landscaping, forestry and hospitality industries. Congress set a cap of 66,000 H-2B visas that can be granted in a fiscal year, which breaks down to 33,000 per six-month period.
According to Baker, there were 80,000 applicants for just 33,000 visas issued the first half of this year and those were gone within the first day.
“That’s never happened,” she says.
Baker says there used to be a returning worker exemption, which meant her cooks, who only came for the summer and went home at the end of the season, weren’t counted toward the cap. But with the loss of that exemption, workers who go back to their homelands in the off-season must reapply for visas every year, and when so few visas are offered to fill the worker needs of all 50 states, a logjam is created.
Baker makes no secret of putting the blame for that logjam squarely in the lap of the U.S. Congress. A sign posted in the back of her cafe reads: “Due to the ineffective U.S. Congress, the H-2B Guest Worker Program has been capped & significantly delayed – Many of our workers are not here.”
“Congress should have fixed this and brought back the returning worker exemption, for one,” said Baker. “They’ve been kicking the can down the road. They did the same thing last year.”
She says Congress shifted the issue to the Department of Homeland Security, but “it’s not their job to deal with it.”
“This is not immigration,” she said. “This is a legal workforce.”
Another guest worker program—the J-1 visa—has not been affected by caps and those workers continue to be plentiful, but, as Baker and others point out, J-1 workers are college students who are younger and thus lack experience. In addition, their time in the country is significantly shorter due to the need to return home for school. That doesn’t work for businesses like Baker’s that stay open through the late summer and early fall.
Baker says the advantages of hiring J-1 workers includes that agencies recruit them in other countries, the workers pay for their own travel and come free to employers who only have to pay them a prevailing wage and provide housing.
“They work hard. They show up. They pay rent,” said Baker. “Problem is they’re gone before the season ends.” So she says the real answer to the shortage is for Congress to fix the H-2B program.
“They need to up the cap or give us back the returning worker exemption,” she said.
Another business hit by the H-2B worker shortage is Custer’s Rocket Motel. Owner Don Herron says he is down three seasonal workers because of the cap.
Herron usually hires a trio of H-2B workers from Jamaica, one of whom has been working summers at the motel since before he bought the property eight years ago. The other two have worked for him the past several seasons and were highly dependable.
“I could leave my place and walk away for a week and not have to worry,” he says. “No money gone. The work’s done right.”
He’s not sure what he will do later in the season when the J-1 workers he hired for the first time this year have to go back to school.
“So what am I going to do all September and October when my place is full of hunters?” Herron asks. He is also concerned about how he will get rooms cleaned for the booked-solid Mickelson Trail Trek in mid-September and the always-busy Buffalo Roundup at the end of that month.
Herron also blames Washington for the H-2B worker shortage, saying he thinks it is a result of infighting between the Trump administration and the Department of Homeland Security whose directors don’t like the guest worker program. While Herron says he supported Trump’s election, he believes the president’s policy on illegal immigration “is seizing up the program on this end.”
Some ask why seasonal businesses don’t just hire locals rather than foreign workers, but the employers say that’s not as easy as it sounds.
In the first place, according to Baker, when permanent jobs are plentiful, seasonal employment is not as attractive to Americans. And then there is the problem of trying to work around the schedules of high school and college students who want time off to attend sports camps and go on family vacations during the summer.
Reifschneider echoes that frustration. She said she has hired several high school girls to help with housekeeping this summer and, while they are working out well, juggling their schedules can be a hassle.
“They’re not working five days a week because they need three days off for a camp,” she said. “They have 4-H. They have a basketball camp, a volleyball camp, a football camp. They’re involved in a lot of things, so that has been a challenge with some of our high school kids.”
One local businessman who wished to remain anonymous said he had one teenage employee who requested over 30 days off during the summer and eventually quit after being denied the leave. He called the shortage of dependable high school and college-age workers “a parental problem,” saying parents are too quick to accommodate their children’s lack of dedication to a job.
Herron also expressed frustration with trying to hire locally, saying that an adult local employee who had been at the motel only three months quit two weeks ago just as the season was getting rolling, stating that the job was “not a good fit anymore.”
With enough J-1 workers in addition to local hires, most of the employers think they will be all right for the summer season, but both Baker and Herron say if the shortage continues they may have to consider cutting back service or closing their doors earlier in the season.
Herron says one solution for the Rocket might be to open fewer rooms.
“I could probably do 12 to 15 rooms,” he said.
But ultimately Herron fears the worker shortage could negatively affect the future of his entire business.
“Hopefully June, July and August I’ll make enough money that I can pay my mortgage payment,” he said. “If not, I’ll have to refinance my place.”
“This is our baby,” Herron said. “But if this [H-2B] program shuts down I have no choice but to sell the place.”