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Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: NH businesses tap Mexico for seasonal labor

By MIKE COTE
February 24. 2018 9:20PM
Wentworth By The Sea Country Club in Rye hires several landscapers from Mexico through the H-2B visa program to fill jobs for the full length of the golf season. The workers stay through November, long after the club's other seasonal employees have gone back to school. (MARK BOLTON/UNION LEADER FILE)



Come April, workers from Mexico will be heading north - to New Hampshire - for jobs employers say would otherwise remain unfilled.

Even before New Hampshire's unemployment rate dropped below 3 percent, Wentworth by the Sea Country Club in Rye had a tough time finding seasonal workers to keep the greens groomed. The Mountain View Grand Resort & Spa in Whitefield struggles to hire housekeeping and food and beverage servers. Stanton Landscaping and Irrigation in Nashua says it can't find enough laborers.

All three companies rely on the federal H-2B program, which allows businesses to apply for visas for foreign seasonal laborers to fill non-agricultural jobs. Wages are set by the government.

The visas are capped at 66,000 a year. The New England Seasonal Business Coalition says that's not enough to meet demand. Last year the agency that administers the program received more than 82,000 petitions for the 33,000 H-2B visas available for work to begin between April and October, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Congress approved a provision in 2015 that allowed workers who had been employed under the program for the previous three years to be exempted from the cap, but that expired last year. The Trump administration later relaxed the cap, but it came halfway through the season, leaving many workers and employers in limbo.

"We've always needed workers to correlate with the six prime months of our golf season. We're open six to eight months, and it's always been hard to find local workers who can work that time period," said Bob Diodati, vice president/general manager at Wentworth by the Sea Country Club. "We have plenty of summer help, but when the summer staff leaves at the end of August we still have two busy months on the golf course."

Wentworth's employee base swells from 25 to about 120 during the peak season. The club typically hires college students for the summer months, but those employees leave before the season ends, Diodati said.

"We hire plenty of them. But we need a certain number (of workers) to continue on into November, when the golf course gets closed and buttoned up," he said. "We've always had a hard time finding workers to work that time period, and it's been worse the last couple of years since unemployment's been low."

For the past five years, the club has brought in four landscapers through the program who work from April to November. This year, Wentworth applied for six landscapers.

"We've also requested two experienced cooks for the same time period because we're having a real problem with culinary staff - so does every restaurant around," said Diodati, who has worked at the golf club for 20 years.

Wentworth has brought in the same four workers from Mexico for five years in a row. They make about $15 an hour.

"They understand a little English, and we speak a little Spanish to them," Diodati said. "They're really part of the family. They come to all of our employee appreciation events, and they're a very important part of our team."

Resort workers needed

You can rise from a lowly kitchen staffer to a manager in hospitality if you're willing to work hard. Just ask Chris Diego, who began his career as a dishwasher for his grandfather. By the time he was 33, he was running Chatham Bars Inn on Cape Cod.

Diego, now the managing director of the Mountain View Grand in Whitefield, says he's had a tough time selling that message to potential recruits.

"Generally, the hospitality industry is painted as low-wage jobs. And yes there are positions that are entry level that are not the highest paying jobs," Diego said. "But there's a career path."

The Mountain View Grand has partnerships with local high school and community college programs to groom hospitality workers, but enrollment has been down in recent years, he said.

The resort augments its staff with temporary foreign workers secured through the H-2B and J-1 visa programs. The latter, a 12-month program, is designed as a cultural and educational exchange for student interns. The resort's primary seasonal needs are in housekeeping and food and beverage servers.

"The students who are on 12-month visas are people who are in hospitality, and they want a career and they want the experience working in a resort in the United States," Diego said. "The H-2B visa is more of a work visa. They can be here eight months, and they supply a real need for us."

During the height of the season in August, the Mountain View Grand employs 250 workers. Between 40 and 60 come from other countries. The lowest wage for non-tipped employees is about $12 an hour.

"With these visa programs, there is more and more uncertainty. Last year there was uncertainty in the H-2B program and we had returning employees, and they were delayed in coming for about 4 1/2 months," Diego said. "They usually would be here at the end of April or May, and we didn't get them until the beginning of September."

Diego says the ultimate answer to the resort's labor problems is hiring local workers. In addition to working with schools, the resort has been grooming entry-level employees for advancement. A 19-year-old employee who began work at 16 as a busser in the food and beverage department recently became an event planner, Diego said.

"It's very difficult to find students that are interested in being in the hospitality industry, whether it's careers in marketing or accounting or guest relations," Diego said. "There is no one solution. Our plan is to continue to try to develop local staff and provide them with a pathway to a career."

Growing a business

Justin Stanton founded Stanton Landscaping and Irrigation in Nashua when he was in high school. When he graduated from college in 2010, he began using the H-2B program to help expand his workforce. He began with three workers. This past season he had eight. They make $14 or $15 an hour.

"It definitely helps because it's nearly impossible to fill the need for reliable workers on a seasonal basis, especially up in New Hampshire," Stanton said. "We're not in Florida, where they're mowing year 'round."

The three workers from Mexico who started with him in 2010 have been coming back every year for the season, which runs from April to November. They seldom call in sick or show up to work late, Stanton said.

"They participate in the community. Several of them are very, very religious. They go on spiritual retreats. They volunteer. It's been a great benefit to me but also to my customers and also beyond that, to the community," he said.

The debate about immigration reform has put the H-2B program in the spotlight. Unions contend that companies use the program to save money on labor costs at the expense of American workers. Businesses that rely on the visa program say local workers aren't interested in the jobs.

"If you're trying to cut down on illegal immigration then you need to make the legal process easier, not more difficult," Stanton said. "A lot of businesses are pushing for Congress to support a returning-worker exemption and some sort of cap relief. It's really causing significant hardship on seasonal businesses."

Contact Business Editor Mike Cote at 206-7724 or mcote@unionleader.com.


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