Sunday, June 06, 2004 | 06/06/2004 | Visa cap leaves businesses short-staffed | 06/06/2004 | Visa cap leaves businesses short-staffed

Posted on Sun, Jun. 06, 2004

Visa cap leaves businesses short-staffed

By Emily Bazar


SACRAMENTO - Rounding the corner into summer and the peak tourist season, businesses across California -- hotels, racetracks, ball clubs and others -- are feverishly preparing for big crowds and big bucks.

But this year some are doing without a class of worker they have depended on for years: temporary, seasonal employees from other countries.

For the first time since the program debuted more than a decade ago, the government has announced that applications for foreign worker visas, known as H-2B visas, have hit the 66,000 cap and that it won't accept more.

Last-minute legislation to remedy the logjam has stalled in Congress, leaving businesses scrambling to fill positions and overseas workers readjusting their plans.

Examples of hardships run the gamut: A hockey team in Maine may not be able to keep its Canadian players for the entire season.

The Oakland A's applied for a handful of Venezuelan and Dominican players, but were turned away.

And some South Lake Tahoe casinos were out of luck when they asked to bring a group of mostly Mexican workers to fill housekeeping and kitchen jobs.

"We really didn't have an idea the cap would affect us this way. We realized about a week before the workers were supposed to arrive," said Paul Schreiner, employment manager for Harrah's, Harvey's and Bill's casinos, who was hoping to hire about 100 workers, beginning in February.

By late June, Schreiner hopes to have all of the positions filled with workers he finds elsewhere. Until then, current employees have to pick up the slack.

"It does affect our overtime significantly," he said.

The H-2B visa program began in the early 1990s, and allows foreign workers to come to the United States for up to a year to work seasonal jobs. The workers fan out to ski resorts, hotels, landscaping firms, sports teams and other businesses around the country.

Employers apply for the visas on behalf of workers abroad. To qualify for the program, the employers need to show that there are no American workers available to fill the positions, said Chris Bentley, spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Farm workers are not eligible for the H-2B; they have a temporary visa category all to themselves.

Congress established the 66,000-visa cap, which until this year had never been enforced.

Last year, for instance, the U.S. State Department issued 78,000 H-2B visas. Bentley said that figure includes applications that had been approved the previous year.

This year, however, immigration officials were flooded with applications early, and they decided to stop accepting them in mid-March.

"This is the first year we have ever had to stop accepting applications," Bentley said. "There are more applications coming in this year than have ever come in."

Bentley doesn't know what's fueling the increased demand, but California economist Jack Kyser attributed it to a recovering economy.

He said a surge in the tech sector is spurring job growth. But the recovery still is in its early stages, he said, and temporary, foreign workers remain more appealing to gun-shy employers than permanent ones.

"They (employers) would be more likely to use temporary people than full-time workers," said Kyser, an economist with the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. "It's still very expensive to hire someone full time in California."

Kyser added that the lagging tourist sector also is perkier.

"In San Francisco, which has been struggling in tourism, it has turned," he said.

But employers have only a 120-day window within which to apply for an H-2B visa. Many with late-starting seasons opened their mailboxes to find their applications returned.

Landscapers nationally -- particularly in the Northeastern states -- are among the hardest hit, unable to import workers to fill the seasonal demand for outdoors projects. California landscapers, however, do not rely on H-2B workers, because they must pay prevailing wages and the business is year-round, not seasonal.

Some California sports teams do rely on H-2B visas.

The Oakland A's wanted to bring five or six players from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela to play in the minor leagues said Keith Lieppman, the director of player development.

Major League Baseball allots the A's 38 visa spots every year for the organization, he said. About 32 ballplayers were already approved and in the country by January.

But team officials wait to bring some players into the country later, in June, because that leaves more time to evaluate their skills overseas. However, they were informed in March that federal officials would accept no more applications for the year.

"They'll just have to play one more year in the Dominican Republic," Lieppman said. "We'll have to get players into our Arizona rookie league from another means."

California's thoroughbred industry also ran into trouble.

About 25 "exercise riders" -- workers who gallop the horses in the morning -- from Mexico, England, Ireland and Argentina couldn't come to seven tracks across the state.

Margaret W. Pascual, the attorney who handles the visa applications for California Thoroughbred Trainers, said the exercise rider applications were returned this year.

Luckily, she said, she applied in time to get 550 backstretch workers, including 450 grooms, into the country before the cap was hit.

"It means the guys who generally count on that money for their families in Mexico and other countries have to find other jobs," Pascual said.

After immigration officials announced they wouldn't accept any more applications this year, at least three bills were introduced in Congress to immediately increase the cap. But they have not yet been debated or approved.


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