World and Nation

Small Businesses Struggle With Cut In Immigrant Work Force

For years, William Zammer Jr. has relied on 100 seasonal foreign employees to turn down beds, boil lobsters and serve cocktails at the restaurants, golf course and inn he owns on Cape Cod and in nearby Plymouth.

This summer, however, the foreign workers will not be returning, and Zammer, like other seasonal employers across the nation, is scrambling to find replacements. “It’s a major crisis,” he said. “We’re very short on work force. We’ll be looking at opening a little later, closing a little earlier, looking at how we do our menus.”

Zammer is caught up in a congressional standoff over immigration reform that is punishing employers who play by the rules and that, advocates say, could cost small companies billions in lost business.

In an effort to win support for comprehensive immigration reform, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and its allies have blocked voting on legislation that would allow employers to rehire foreign seasonal nonagricultural workers independent of a 1991 quota.

As a result, the government is limited to issuing the 66,000 seasonal work visas set when the visa program, known as H-2B, became law — 33,000 for winter workers and 33,000 for summer workers. Last year, more than 120,000 foreign workers entered the country on H-2B visas.

For Cape Cod, the impact has been devastating: Employers will receive only 15 of the 5,000 visas they had requested, according to the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s just ruthless for the Hispanic caucus to do this, use it as a bargaining chip,” said Zammer, whose foreign workers — mostly from Jamaica and Eastern Europe — normally make up 25 percent of his staff. “We’re working at finding new people. We have to. But it’s extremely difficult, because you end up stealing from other people who are also trying to get help.”

Returning workers became exempt from the cap in 2005, when Congress passed the Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act, and President Bush signed it into law. The act expired in 2007, and Congress passed a one-year extension that was attached to the National Defense Authorization Act. The extension expired on Sept. 30, 2007, the end of the 2007 fiscal year.

Employers say that unless Congress acts soon, they will have to scale back operations, because the labor pool in many resort areas is not deep enough to provide new workers, and many do not want seasonal jobs.

“It’s kind of sad that those who have followed the law, paid an inordinate amount of money to follow the law by paying attorney’s fees, prevailing wage and following the rules, are those who are getting hurt,” said Don Mooers, an immigration lawyer working with Save Small Businesses, a group of small business owners lobbying for the cap to be lifted.

“I get that question every day, ‘Why are we following the law when the guy down the street isn’t, and I’m the one who may face going out of business,’” Mooers said.