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Without Migrant Workers, Summer Sours for Cape Cod Businesses

From April until Thanksgiving each year, a neon lobster shines out over the streets of Provincetown, Massachusetts, calling tourists to The Lobster Pot, where for the past 45 years Chef Tim McNulty’s family has been serving up lobster rolls, chowder, and other Cape Cod specialties to as many as 200,000 diners a year. Between 2015 and 2017, however, the neon sign — and the restaurant — has been shuttered until mid-May.

That is because McNulty has faced delays getting the 35 to 40 foreign guest workers he relies on to keep his restaurant running at full capacity. McNulty says keeping the restaurant closed for the month of May has cost him $900,000 in lost revenues. It has hurt the community, too, by cutting what he can pay dozens of U.S. employees, suppliers, and the government. “It translates to $100,000 of meal taxes that we didn’t pay,” he says. “That’s a big loss for the economy.”

Our H-2B workers fill the gaps, and keep all us Americans working.

McNulty hires his foreign workers through the H-2B visa program, which was designed to help employers overcome seasonal local labor shortages. That’s certainly the case in Provincetown, which has just 2,800 year-round residents but sees its population explode to 65,000 during the summer months as tourists flock to Cape Cod. “We’re a classic example of why the H-2B system exists in the first place,” McNulty says. “It’s crazy how busy it gets down here.”

Cape Cod’s population has been aging, and second-home owners and retirees have replaced young working families, who can no longer afford to buy homes. That’s making it harder for businesses like The Lobster Pot to find U.S.-born workers for low-skilled jobs as janitors, dishwashers, and food servers. McNulty advertises nationally, and hires everyone who turns up at his door. But he always comes up short. “It’s not a question of us not hiring Americans. All the Americans that live here have jobs,” McNulty says. “The economy has grown, the tourism has grown, but the American workforce has dwindled.”

That’s where the H-2B program comes in. McNulty hires three dozen or so Jamaican workers who arrive each season, then return home when the restaurant closes for the winter. Without them, McNulty would not be able to operate at full capacity, and he would have to close up shop before the season ends. In fact, it is because of these temporary visas that he is able to employ up to 70 U.S. workers. Research backs this up: Each H-2B worker supports or creates 4.64 jobs for U.S. workers. Massachusetts employers hired 2,798 guest workers using H-2B visas in 2014, suggesting that almost 13,000 American workers owe their jobs to the program.

Although McNulty relies on the H-2B visa program, it is far from ideal and has created some problems for him in recent years. In addition to delays that have forced him to open late, there is always the looming threat that he will not get the workers he needs at all. Only 66,000 visas are issued each year, and in 2017 Congress did not exempt returning workers from counting toward the visa cap. McNulty was fortunate and received his workers. Other businesses in the area did not. “Many people I know didn’t get anybody,” he says. “Clearly, there’s more demand than there is supply.”

McNulty knows next year it might be The Lobster Pot that is left without H-2B workers, so he recently drew up a contingency plan. Without guest workers, he calculates that The Lobster Pot would have to stay closed for the weekday lunch service and one evening each week, and operate at reduced capacity the rest of the time. That would cost McNulty several million dollars in lost sales, with a corresponding impact on his tax payments, employee wages, and supplier payments. “We’ll be down 40 percent, and the domino effect will be felt by many, many people around our area,” he says. “It’s going to be devastating.”

This isn’t just a problem on Cape Cod. “The same thing’s happening to small businesses all over the country,” McNulty says. What’s needed, he believes, is immigration reform that makes it easier for employers to hire the guest workers they need so that they can operate at full capacity and keep delivering jobs for Americans, too. “This isn’t hypothetical — it’s real,” McNulty says. “Our H-2B workers fill the gaps, and keep all us Americans working.”

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