Sarah Morris is preparing to open her family’s resort, Basin Harbor in Ferrisburgh, in mid-May, when guests, mostly families, will begin arriving to golf, waterski, play tennis, paddleboard, wakesurf, kayak and walk the nature trails.
Basin Harbor has 150 guest rooms between the hotel and 74 cottages. It employs about 25 people year-round, but that number balloons to close to 250 from spring to fall.
“We rely heavily on bringing staff not only from outside Vermont but also outside the country,” Morris said.
Starting in the 1990s, the resort hired foreign workers on H-2B visas every year until the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021.
Now, the federal government is more than doubling the number of such visas — but the measure may not be enough to help Basin Harbor, which needs to fill positions.
“A little too little too late,” Morris said.
H-2B visas allow foreign workers to take seasonal employment for up to three years before they must leave the country. Employers may hire them for up to six months, and employees must stay hired for a series of six-month periods up to three years in order to be able to stay in the country. Employers must first post the jobs locally and only if they cannot find local workers may they petition the federal government for workers on H-2B visas.
With hopes that the pandemic is waning, Morris expects to need those foreign workers again as the resort anticipates the return of a full complement of guests.
Businesses can apply for H-2B visas for winter or summer employees. They can apply to bring in workers from abroad, or to pick up employees who are already working in the U.S. for another seasonal employer. The big demand comes for summer employees, when hotels and resorts compete with landscaping businesses in the South for workers.
“There’s a great demand in the summer season when not only there’s tourism and hospitality, but also things are growing and need to be cut back and more hands are needed,” said Morris, who represents the fifth generation of her family to run the lakeside resort on land her family first farmed in 1886.
Except for 2020 and 2021, Morris said, demand for summer H-2B visas has exceeded the U.S. Department of Homeland Security allotment.
Morris said Basin Harbor is at a disadvantage when applying for H-2B visas because businesses that can show they need people starting April 1 get the first allotments of visas, whereas the resort does not need additional employees until May.
“Typically, what happens with the summer season is that all of the petitions that are available are filled way before our season even starts,” Morris said.
Usually, she said, the cap is lifted sometime during the summer to allow an additional allotment, but by then, Basin Harbor is well into its season.
“We’ve seen this year a huge amount of demand for this type of employment opportunity,” she said.
This year, Morris said, Basin Harbor petitioned for 25 people to work as housekeepers and servers.
Last month, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and 50 other members of Congress wrote to the secretaries of Homeland Security and Labor, urging them to increase the limit on summer visas before summer begins. Last week, the departments announced an additional 35,000 visas would be made available for the summer beyond the 32,000 that were planned.
Betsy Bishop, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, welcomed the increase in visas.
“With a 2.9% unemployment rate, we know that even if all 9,500 of those (unemployed) Vermonters were hired tomorrow, we would still have 16,500 job openings,” Bishop said in an emailed statement. “The only solution to our current demographic crisis is to recruit more people from outside the state into our workforce. The national increase in H-2B visas is a small, but essential, piece of the puzzle to combatting our labor crisis.”
But Morris said the increase in visas doesn’t really help Basin Harbor.
By the time she applies in February for workers in May, the pool of workers abroad is already exhausted. Morris petitions instead to hire workers already in the country on an H-2B visa.
Employers go ahead and recruit, hoping their petitions to hire H-2B visas will come through, Morris said, and for Basin Harbor, that has always worked out.
This year, she has had a hard time finding the workers she needs. She started taking applications in December and actively recruiting in January, but so far, she has been able to find only half the people she needs to fill the 25 positions she hopes to fill with foreign workers.
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