A key federal program to admit foreign workers to the United States reached its quota this week, leading Lake George and resort areas nationwide to hope there will be enough seasonal workers to run their tourism industries.
SUNY Adirondack hosted a job fair Wednesday and two major employers — Great Escape and the Sagamore Resort — are holding their hiring fairs Saturday.
But, as in years past, many Lake George employers will be relying heavily on foreign workers this summer. Barring a historic turnaround, there simply won’t be enough U.S. citizens willing to work for low wages during the nicest three or four months of the year.
“There are a ton of job openings in the area,” said Amanda May Metzger of the Lake George Chamber of Commerce.
A lot of the foreign workers come to Lake George through two federal permits:
—J-1 visas are an exchange-type program typically used by students; 31,174 J-1 holders worked in New York in 2015.
—H-2B visas are for temporary non-agricultural workers and are secured by the prospective employer. The number of H-2Bs is capped at 66,000 nationwide per fiscal year.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced Thursday that it had reached the quota Monday and has begun rejecting H-2B applications for any workers who would start work before Oct. 1.
Some Lake George employers began to see delays earlier this month in their applications and grew concerned.
“This is a serious issue for us,” Metzger said. “Our members make every effort to hire local workers first ... but if they don’t get those jobs filled, they need to hire workers from somewhere else.”
There seems not to be a problem with J-1 visas. Those are typically secured by an agency that recruits the young foreign workers and arranges jobs for them in Lake George.
Among the employers in the Lake George area that is hiring foreign summer workers in the village itself.
Mayor Robert Blais said the village hires about 18 a year, most of them from eastern Europe, and pays them a little more than minimum wage, $10 or $11 an hour.
They clean public restrooms, sweep streets and empty trash cans, and they don’t have local competition for those jobs, Blais said.
He disputes the periodic criticism that the foreign students are taking jobs that American youths could fill.
“That’s not true,” he said. “Lake George wouldn’t be able to staff the businesses properly without the foreign students.”
The Lake George Steamboat Co. payroll swells to about 350 in the summer, and while it doesn’t put exchange workers in all positions, it relies heavily on them for the 150-strong food and beverage team.
“I've already hired 40 of them,” said Bill Wilson, the company’s food and beverage director. “Supposedly they’re getting their J-1 visas.”
These young workers are from Poland, Romania and Turkey, he said. Wait staff and others who receive tips will be paid $9.70 per hour. Cooks and others who don’t receive tips will get $12 per hour.
Wilson said he doesn’t find many takers in the local community for these jobs.
Wednesday’s job fair at SUNY Adirondack produced very few applications. It did immediately follow a huge snowstorm, but last year’s job fair had similar results, netting only about 15 applications.
Wilson said some American college students who’ve committed to return to work will get him through the start of the season in early May, then the foreign workers will arrive in late May. The squeeze will come in late September, when the foreign workers go home as the steamboat company is entering the fall foliage season.
“We do the best we can the last three weeks or so,” Wilson said.
Great Escape spokeswoman Jessica Hansen said the J-1 visa holders account for less than 20 percent of the 1,500 workers the theme park will need this season. This is why it’s holding the job fair from 9 to 2 p.m. Saturday, and opening the human resources office every Monday afternoon starting March 27 — to attract local applicants. Opening day is May 13, only eight weeks away.
One of the agencies that recruits foreign students for Great Escape and Lake George Steamboat Co. is CIEE of Portland, Maine. After the election of Donald Trump, who campaigned on protecting American jobs from foreign competition, CIEE issued a statement to clients reassuring them that the J-1 program would likely be safe, as it has enjoyed bipartisan support in the past.
No one who spoke to The Gazette for this story has seen any indication of difficulty obtaining J-1 workers.
Their worry is more about H-2B visas.
TO BE OR NOT H-2B
The Lake George Chamber of Commerce recently took its concerns to U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, who represents the area; her staff urged any businesses having trouble with the process to contact the congresswoman’s office for any assistance it could provide.
Also last week, a bipartisan group of 32 U.S. senators sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly expressing their concerns about the H-2B program.
The concerns were borne out, as the door was effectively shut Monday.
The key change for 2017 appears to be that the returning-worker provision of the program was allowed to expire Sept. 30. Previously, H-2B visas did not count toward the 66,000 quota if issued to a returning guest worker. Now they do count, sparking worries that there won’t be enough workers for the industries that need them.
Now, the only cases that don’t count toward the quota are foreign workers already here who extend their H-2B and — in a gem of the bizarrely selective world of federal regulations — those who process fish roe or work in the Marianas Commonwealth or Guam.
Fred Vogel, owner of Northern Hospitality, said he employs both H-2B and J-1 visa holders at his Lake George-area businesses. Before he can recruit abroad, he’s required to advertise the jobs locally.
But he gets as few as zero applicants in some cases, and so relies on the foreigners.
Lake George’s problem, Vogel said, is that it doesn’t have a year-round economy, so there’s no job for summer workers the rest of the year.
Even year-round operations like The Sagamore in Bolton Landing need many more workers in the summer than winter. At the job fair Saturday, it’s seeking everything from electricians to state-licensed massage therapists. The historic resort already has been granted three H-2B approvals for the upcoming season, according to a federal database: to hire 35 housekeepers, 25 cooks and 20 waiters or waitresses.
The federal database indicates that most H2-B approvals in New York state so far in 2017 are for companies in Long Island and New York City’s northern suburbs, among the highest-income areas in the state. The majority of the H-2B approvals in the Capital Region went to landscaping firms.
The economics of it all are not what they might initially seem.
Wilson noted that some of the steamboat company’s young J-1 visa workers tell him they make more in three weeks at Lake George than their parents make in a year back home — and some work a second job to double up on that.
Vogel noted that the expenses an employer must pay to import a $12-per-hour worker amount to an additional $4 to $6 per hour, with the range depending on factors such as whether the airplane ticket is to Indonesia or Jamaica.
It’s also not a universally happy system for the foreign workers, especially the young ones.
They may wind up crammed into housing units, sometimes encounter paperwork problems, often face language and cultural barriers, and can find themselves in exploitative or abusive situations.
Mayor Blais said the village this year will revive its student worker resource center, which operated for about 10 years but shut down several years back for lack of money.
Using donated space, volunteer staffing and funds from the surrounding towns, the center will provide young workers -- foreign and American -- with resources or assistance to deal with the problems they sometimes face in their summer jobs, Blais said.