Leanne Giordano, restaurant manager at one of the Island’s most popular — and busiest — family restaurants, is fully staffed for the summer. And she has a running list of more than 150 prospective waiters, waitresses and bussers to call just in case a position opens.
Likewise, V. Jaime Hamlin, a well-known Vineyard Haven caterer, is set to start the summer season. On Saturday alone she needs a staff of 60 to cover three separate events. It was a roster she had no problem filling. “I’ve had a ton of people calling,” she said. “Obviously there is a need and obviously there are a lot of jobs.”
Their stories stand in contrast to an estimate given this week at a public hearing of the state Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development in Edgartown. At the hearing, Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, said the Island is looking at a possible shortage of up to 1,200 seasonal workers this summer.
“There is a projected shortfall,” Ms. Gardella said by telephone later this week. “We’re looking at about 1,000 people shy of where we normally are.”
Island employers have traditionally filled many of their seasonal vacancies with foreign workers whose H-2B visas allow them to travel to the United States and seek employment here. The program has brought roughly 5,000 foreign workers to the Cape and the Islands annually. The number of visas granted are limited, but in years past, exceptions were granted to returning workers. This year, that exception was not made.
But despite the restriction, plenty of Vineyard employers are reporting little or no trouble finding staff. “I really didn’t have a shortage in the kitchen,” said kitchen manager Bill Giordano at Giordano’s Restaurant in Oak Bluffs.
Mr. Giordano usually hires 10 workers on H-2B visas. This year, the state granted none of his visa requests. So he and his cousin Leanne got creative when it came to filling the gaps. They have hired a number of workers on J-1 visas, permits which allow students to travel and work in the United States.
Unlike H-2B visas, J-1 visas allow the students to work multiple jobs, which could further protect against a possible worker shortage. But the visas also could create a problem come late summer. “Many Cape and Islands employers are meeting their current needs with J-1 workers,” said David Augustinho, executive director of the Cape and Islands Workforce Investment Board. “The downside to that is, come September and October, we won’t have the workers.” Students on J-1 visas often leave their place of employment early to travel or return to school, he said.
Susan Goldstein, owner of the Mansion House in Vineyard Haven, has employed J-1 workers for the summer to replace the H-2B workers the inn and spa normally hires. In addition, she and her husband, Sherman, have enticed staff by increasing the amount of staff housing they offer. “We are learning to deal in other ways,” Mrs. Goldstein said. “If we need a line cook and we need them badly, we provide housing,” she said. “We decide what is crucial for us to continue, to maintain the quality of our services.”
Other local businesses are hiring younger employees to fill out their staff. “There are less college kids coming back for the summer [so] we are relying mostly on local high school students,” said Laurie Welch, owner of Basics Clothing Co. on Circuit avenue in Oak Bluffs. Despite initial concerns, Mrs. Welch started the season with a full and competent staff. “We were worried about it, but we’ve had no problems. We have a great group of kids. We consider ourselves very fortunate,” she said.
Sherri Church, career and work study coordinator at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, put it this way: “I can’t say for sure if it’s because of the visa problem, but we’ve lost a lot of adult workers in this community ... It opens a great opportunity for our students. They’re getting more experience. They’re getting a chance.”
Ms. Church organizes the annual student job fair at the high school. In years past, between 20 and 25 employers have attended the April fair, she said. This year, between 35 and 40 employers turned out, but fewer students came to job hunt. “Most students already have jobs,” she said.
The reliance on younger employees among Island business owners may reflect a growing national trend for college students, as well as high schoolers and recent college graduates, to forgo summer jobs scooping ice cream and selling T-shirts. Instead, many young people are seeking internships, volunteer positions and travel opportunities. These experiences are often times unpaid and sometimes even come at a cost to participants. It is a cost many are willing to swallow to boost their resumes.
This spring, 60 young people applied for eight internships offered at The Yard, a dance colony in Chilmark. “I thought that was pretty astonishing, but wonderful,” said artistic director Wendy Taucher. All Yard interns receive housing and some, depending on their level of experience, also receive a stipend.
Those who stand to lose employees to the lure of summer internships are the same ones who could be hurt by the lack of long-term foreign workers: businesses catering to the summer crowds.
“The Vineyard just used to be flooded with college students and it’s just not that way any more,” said Mrs. Welch at Basics.
According to a 2008 study conducted for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and the Island Plan, industries providing construction, food, retail and entertainment services employ almost half of the Island’s workforce. Statewide, these industries employ just 15 per cent of workers. The study, conducted by the Amherst consulting firm Development Cycles, estimates between 3,000 and 4,000 workers come to the Vineyard in the summer season to live and work temporarily.
But, if the workers do not come, the businesses will not be able to offer their services.
“People are making do. There are a fair amount of J-1 student visa workers. Employers are certainly hiring students and are trying to entice people out of retirement. But they are talking about not being open as many hours. Services will not be available as much as we normally expect them to be,” said Ms. Gardella at the chamber of commerce. “Businesses are concerned about being able to perform.”