Summer Visa Changes Will Leave Vineyarders Short on Foreign Help

By MANDY LOCKE

For the last two summers, Stanimir Vasilev hauled Vineyard tourists back and forth across Beach Road between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, practicing his English as visitors stepped aboard the purple and white Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) bus. Mr. Vasilev came to the Vineyard early and stayed late - as did hundreds of other Bulgarians arriving each summer to help Island businesses through the busy tourist season.

Mr. Vasilev, a 23-year-old recent college graduate, planned to return this May along with 14 of his Bulgarian college friends to drive buses for the VTA. His plans changed suddenly last week when the federal government imposed a freeze on the H2B visa program which brings thousands of seasonal foreign workers to the United States.

"I have to change all my plans. It's a little late to find good summer jobs here [in Bulgaria]. Most people start looking for those in the winter," Mr. Vasilev said in a telephone conversation.

The VTA may be the most prominent example, but it's only the most visible of many Island employers who will be hurting for help this summer without the visa program which brings low-skilled workers to the area.

There's no way yet of knowing exactly how many Island businesses were caught by surprise when the H2B visa program was cut short this month. But last year, nearly 700 Cape and Islands employers brought some 5,000 workers from abroad to work in the busy season.

The news sent VTA administrators scrambling - trying to plug a 30 per cent hole in their summer driver work force. A VTA driver shortage means one thing - less service in a public transportation system officials have bolstered over the last several years.

"Without Congressional intervention, the VTA may be forced to reduce service which will leave people standing on the side of the road," said Angela Gompert, VTA administrator, in a letter sent to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy last week.

The chances of this kink being worked out before the start of the Island tourist season looked dim this week. Senator Kennedy's office said yesterday that he is considering legislation to address the issue. Such a move would be tough in this political climate, some legislators admitted this week.

"There's theory and then there's reality. In theory, there could be an adjustment to the cap. In reality, nothing will move in the House and the Senate without the enthusiasm of the House and Senate leadership. The same folks who are running the homeland security department run Congress right now. The political landscape is forbidding," said Steve Schwadron, Rep. William Delahunt's chief of staff. Mr. Schwadron said his boss is concerned about the freeze on temporary work visas.

For the first time since 1991, when Congress adopted a limit of 66,000 on temporary work visas granted to unskilled laborers, the government is enforcing the cap. It was unclear this week whether this is the first time the requests ever reached the cap or whether administrators simply haven't enforced the cap before. Mr. Schwadron said congressmen got no clear answers from federal officials at a meeting Wednesday afternoon.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a bureau of the Department of Homeland Security, announced last week that all visa requests received after March 9 would be returned to sender. The VTA's application for 15 Bulgarian bus drivers was among those arriving too late.

"[The government] was pushing these visas, and all of the sudden they are enforcing the cap," said Lois Craine, assistant administrator of the VTA.

These worker visas have helped many Island businesses ease the summer labor crunch over the last decade. Seasonal businesses have increasingly given up on college students, who often arrive in June and must leave well before the tourist season slows. Instead, employers turn to workers like Mr. Vasilev, who arrive in May and can stay into the shoulder season.

American workers just weren't cutting it, agreed Peter Martell, owner of the Wesley Hotel and the Lampost in Oak Bluffs.

"I haven't had an American girl apply for a chambermaid job in eight years," said Mr. Martell, who relies on the H2B program for 25 of the 100 jobs he needs filled each season.

Because of the sudden shift in policy last week, Mr. Martell, too, will be short seven employees.

"We'll have to punt. It definitely puts a strain on us. I'll have to go out and beat the bushes. You can go out and beat the bushes all you want, but nothing's going to fall out," he said.

After the USCIS announcement last week, government officials encouraged businesses to turn to unemployed Americans to fill their work force. Island business leaders said that is not a realistic solution.

"While we recognize that the unemployment rate across the country is high, many unemployed people in our region have seasonal employment. [Commercial drivers license] vehicle operators are hard to come by and even harder to attract into this region, due to the high cost of living and rigorous driver requirements," said Ms. Gompert in her letter to Senator Kennedy.

Mike McCourt, manager of Murdick's Fudge shop - who received approval for his foreign workers the same day the USCIS announced the H2B cutoff - said that without his Jamaican workers, his business expenses would skyrocket.

"I'd love to employ people who live here. Economically, there's no way I could do it. I'd have to get $30 for a pound of fudge," said Mr. McCourt, whose workers live in employee housing above the Edgartown fudge shop.

While leaders on Capitol Hill search for someone to blame for the H2B visa problem, some Island business owners are bracing for a tough season, and at least a dozen Bulgarians students at the University for World and National Economy in Sofia are starting to make other plans for their summer break.

"Most of us are still hoping something will happen with the [H2B] program. But at least half of us will give up and move on," said Mr. Vasilev.