Several Island hotels are facing a labor shortage this summer due to changes in how seasonal work visas are distributed.

“I’ve never encountered this,” said Rob Hurst, general manager of Edgartown Commons, a 35-unit efficiency hotel that employs 10 to 11 people each summer. Five are housekeepers who typically work under an H-2B visa. This year, the hotel received no approvals for those visas, leaving Mr. Hurst scrambling to find workers as the busy season approaches.

“We’ll need a different plan. Otherwise, we can’t service our guests, and we would not be able to open,” he said.

“Every year it’s a stressful sprint,” said attorney Marilyn Vukota with the Edgartown firm McCarron, Murphy and Vukota, who assists more than a dozen businesses on the Island with the visa application process. This year, she said just one of her clients was granted the visas they requested.

“This year was a huge problem,” she said.

H-2B visas allow businesses to hire foreign workers for seasonal work. In a three-step process, employers first must prove to the U.S. Department of Labor that there aren’t American workers willing to do the jobs, in order to receive a labor certification. In January 2017, 13 Island businesses were approved for labor certification according to Department of Labor data. They included Cronig’s Market, the Inn at Menemsha, The Harborside Inn in Edgartown, and Little House Café in Vineyard Haven. Jobs included housekeepers, a fudge server, groundskeepers, food prep workers and grocery clerks.

After acquiring labor certification, employers can apply for approval from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to hire foreign workers. If the employer is approved by the USCIS, the Department of State can then grant the visas to individuals hoping to work here.

Congress has capped the number of new H-2B visas that can be given out each year at 66,000. Half of those are allowed in the first half of the fiscal year (October through March), and half are allowed in the second half (April through September). People who have already received a visa in the previous season did not count toward the caps in fiscal year 2016, but that exemption was not continued starting in fiscal year 2017. 

The whole process has to be done within 90 days of the employee start date. On the Island, most employers need workers starting April 1, meaning they apply for labor certifications on Jan. 1.

The process was changed this year both at the Department of Labor and at the USCIS. According to a January press release from the Department of Labor, the agency received three times as many applications on Jan. 1 this year as on the same day in 2017. The release called the number of applications “unprecedented.”

The agency usually turns around labor certifications within days of receiving confirmation that recruitment instructions have been followed, according to Ms. Vukota. This year they took much longer, and didn’t begin releasing results of applications submitted Jan. 1 until Feb. 20.

Due to that delay, the USCIS used a lottery system to grant visas instead of a first-come first-served system, making the process much less predictable for applicants. The USCIS notified employers of whether their applications were approved on March 1.

Diane Carr of the Hob Knob hotel was granted the visas she requested, but she said it was sheer luck.

“No matter what process you went through, it didn’t matter at the end of the day,” she said. “It was up to the government who chose to do a lottery.”

Maxime Bryan is Jamaican and has worked at Edgartown Commons in the summer for more than a decade. She was not granted a visa this year.

“This is really heartbreaking because it’s my source of earning my income for myself and my family each year,” she wrote in an email to the Gazette.

Ms. Vukota said the visa issue is a touchy subject nationally, but it shouldn’t be.

“This is not an immigration issue. It’s a small business issue,” she said.

Mr. Hurst said the Edgartown Commons will have to make do with people who have J-1 visas, also called the exchange visa program, and others. Many J-1 visa holders are students, meaning they are only available to work for part of the season.

“Now, we are looking to patch together a quilt, if you will, of workers to get through this season and hope for better days ahead,” he said.

This story has been corrected to accurately represent current H-2B visa cap regulations. It previously cited outdated regulations.