Historically, up to a third of those workers are foreigners, including Mexicans, Filipinos, Canadians and Jamaicans, who are hired on seasonal visas. But when many of the island’s business owners applied for those visas this year, they heard from the government that none were left.
So at the Iroquois Hotel, a Victorian property on the waterfront where rooms command up to $1,200 a night, the owner is trying to figure out how to maintain its high standards without 30 Jamaican housekeepers. Other hotels are contemplating closing off whole sections. Even those who own the ubiquitous horses are wondering if they will have enough workers.
“It’s urgent for us to get more visas to save the season,” Brad Chambers, who operates horse tours and taxis, said.
The island whose selling point is being stuck in time is now suffering because it is stuck in the middle of a modern-day struggle over jobs and who should be doing them. So, too, are a number of the regional industries that define the American summer but have increasingly relied on non-American workers, from vacation spots in Maine and Minnesota to Gulf Coast shrimpers and the salmon fisheries of Alaska.
The visas in question, known as H-2Bs, have an annual nationwide quota of 66,000, divided between winter and summer. But the summer allotment was exhausted quickly because Congress, concerned about the program’s impact on American workers, chose in December not to renew a provision that allowed workers who had H-2Bs in some previous years to work without being counted against the quota. That decision effectively sliced the number of visas by at least 50 percent.