A summer of uncertainty looms for Island business owners in their annual scramble to hire staff — especially the foreign workers that so many employers have long relied on to staff shops, bars and kitchens during the Vineyard’s busiest season.

Summer's coming and uncertainty looms for business owners worried about finding enough help. — Ray Ewing

After being stymied by the pandemic and government policy upheavals in recent years, Island business owners say the process of obtaining visas for foreign workers is well under way this year. Now the war in Ukraine and a new Covid subvariant in Europe are the latest complicating factors.

Seasonal workers from foreign countries largely arrive on the Island each year through one of two programs: The J-1 student visa program and the H-2B program, a longer-term work visa open to all workers instead of students alone.

Around the Island, business owners have been working to secure visas for student and H-2B workers. Some have already offered contracts to workers eager to arrive on J-1 student visas.

But as visas become more easily available, the war in Ukraine has introduced a new area of volatility, especially for workers coming from Eastern Europe.

“Right now, we’re watching that very carefully,” Rep. Bill Keating told the Gazette by phone Wednesday.

During the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the congressman said the government had concerns over whether workers living in the States would return home after their visas expired. He said similar concerns could resurface.

“If 2014 . . . is an indication, that was a factor,” Representative Keating said.

He added that the recent surge of an omicron subvariant in Europe could also lead to holdups in obtaining visas for the summer. Candidates for J-1 student visas are required to appear before the U.S. embassy to interview in person, he said.

“The State Department still wants to do the in person visas at this juncture,” Mr. Keating said. “That requirement is going to be a constraining factor.”

Mr. Keating said it’s unclear exactly how many workers may be able to arrive to the Vineyard for the summer, but he acknowledged the demand on the Island is high.

“It’s in the process stage at this point,” the congressman said, referring to the effort to allocate J-1 visas. “So we don’t have any hard and fast numbers.”

Soft as a Grape manager Richard White in December at his Edgartown store. Foreign workers make up half his staff in the summer. — Tim Johnson

Oak Bluffs Association executive director Christine Todd said she has urged business owners to stay flexible and seek local workers.

“We have to be able to plan . . . understanding that the wrecking ball of the new variant could come at any moment,” Ms. Todd said.

But many longtime businesses rely on their ability to hire workers from foreign countries.

Murdick’s Fudge owner Mike McCourt said he is expecting up to 11 student workers to arrive on J-1 visas.

“So far, so good on the J-1s,” Mr. McCourt said. But he noted the situation in Europe is dynamic and could turn precarious. “Obviously it’s day-to-day over there,” he said.

Mr. McCourt said he normally relies heavily on H-2B visas to fill out his staff. In previous years, workers on H-2B visas who returned year after year were exempt from a cap on the number of H-2B workers allowed in the country. But that exemption timed out when Congress failed to renew it, leaving the fate of workers’ H-2B visas up to a lottery system this year.

“We’ll do the best we can to get people and stay open,” Mr. McCourt said. “We’ve got our work cut out.”

Some of Murdick’s seasonal workers have returned every year for more than a decade, Mr. McCourt said, adding that he sees many of them as family. But with uncertainty surrounding H-2B visas, it’s unclear whether those workers will be able to return.

“We’ve still got our fingers crossed that Congress does something,” he said, referring to the exemption from the cap.

Doug Abdelnour, owner of Nancy’s Restaurant and Nomans in Oak Bluffs, said he’s applied to employ around 20 workers using J-1 visas this year, but he said the actual number could vary greatly.

“That seems promising this year, but you have to wait until [the workers] get to the embassy,” Mr. Abdelnour said.

Richard White, district manager for the three Martha’s Vineyard Soft as a Grape stores, which sell T-shirts and other merchandise, said he’s offered six European students contracts for the summer. They would make up about half of his staff, Mr. White said.

“We feel very positive that things will progress and we’ll see additional help and students for the summer,” he said.

By most accounts, the need for summer workers has grown more acute on the Island.

Help wanted ads in the Vineyard Gazette partly reflect the trend.

In this week’s print edition, the newspaper carried 247 column inches of help wanted ads in its classified section, not including display ads. In the same week last year, the number was 151 column inches. In 2020 the number was 61. In 2019 and 2018 the numbers were 85 and 76 column inches respectively.

Still, Island employers said they are holding out hope for this year.

“We’re optimistic, but there’s no guarantee,” Mr. Abdelnour said. “Every year I say this is the hardest summer we’ve had getting help, and somehow it manages to get worse.”