Six weeks ago, Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) administrators worried they'd be forced to leave some bus riders stranded on the side of the road this summer.
Now, on the eve of the summer season, VTA officials say they have found enough drivers to meet summer demands.
Last month, the public bus system faced a 30 per cent hole in its summer workforce - the result of a decision by federal immigration officials to enforce a limit on temporary visas (H2Bs) for foreign workers this year. The VTA, like 700 other employers across the Cape and Islands, have come to rely on foreign workers to meet demands in the tourist season.
The announcement by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, left thousands of seasonal employers across the nation in the lurch. The decision sparked debate in Washington, and a few pieces of legislation aimed at temporarily fixing the problem are working their way through Congress.
"Some combination of bewilderment and anger is growing in Congress, on both sides of the House and Senate, on both sides of the partisan aisle," said Steve Schwadron, chief of staff for Representative William Delahunt.
Rep. Delahunt and Senator Edward Kennedy sponsored a bill that would lift the cap by 40,000 on a one-time emergency basis for this year. The bill awaits debate in House and Senate judiciary committees.
"In Congressional time, this is traveling at break-neck speed. But it should travel this fast, or it's not worth the bother," Mr. Schwadron said. It is unclear whether the bill can be taken up in enough time to help Cape and Island employers this season.
The VTA didn't wait for a Congressional fix to the problem. The prospect of hauling passengers around the Island a half-million times this season without 15 returning Bulgarian bus drivers sent VTA officials into panic mode. Since mid-March, Darren Morris, who manages drivers for the VTA, scoured the country for bus drivers - luring student bus drivers to the Island from universities as far away as Ohio and Pennsylvania.
"It took up a lot of time. But in the long run, it's not a disaster. We'll be able to run the buses this summer," said Mr. Morris. He stressed that ensuring housing for workers enabled these college students to come to the Island.
The VTA also stepped up bus driver recruitment on the Island. A cross-section of Islanders - fishermen, construction workers, retirees - signed up for intensive driver training courses this spring.
"We have a real spread of people," said Mr. Morris.
Already, three new drivers completed training and obtained commercial drivers licenses. Mr. Morris is now training another set of drivers.
While VTA officials trust they'll get through the season ahead, their summer staffing is still not ideal. Enough drivers will be on board next weekend to handle the VTA's first schedule increase. By June 19, when the VTA moves into its summer schedule, the college students will be ready and behind the wheel.
August will be the problem. As the student drivers return to college in the middle of that month, other drivers will be pulling double duty. Mr. Morris hopes, by that point, that some of his former Bulgarian drivers will find a way to come to the Vineyard. Several of them are pursuing J1 visas, designed specifically for foreign college students. If those visas are granted, these students could be in place by the middle of summer and stay through October.
Despite the headaches VTA experienced in the aftermath of the unexpected cutoff last month, Mr. Morris said he would return to the visa system next year if assured the sudden cap enforcement does not happen again.
"I would definitely do it again. The benefit of the H2B workers is that they can work up to a year. They stay May through October, and that just doesn't happen with the college students in the [United] States," Mr. Morris said.
While the VTA managed to plug a hole in its workforce for this summer, other employers in this region were not so lucky.
In order to help ease the worker shortage for the upcoming tourist season, Rep. Delahunt arranged a scouting trip last Tuesday for Cape and Island business leaders to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Using workers from this United States territory would allow employers to "bypass the unpredictable H2B visa bureaucracy," a Delahunt official said in a release this week.
It is unclear whether a partnership between Cape and Island officials and business leaders and their counterparts in the Virgin Islands can be forged in enough time to help with the upcoming season.
"While [Cape and Island officials] pressed for help in overcoming the labor shortage caused by sudden disruptions in the H2B visa program, all agreed the top priority was to lay a sound foundation for a productive, long-term business relationship," said Mr. Schwadron in a press release.