In today’s tight labor market, you’d be hard-pressed to find a hotelier who hasn’t been affected by staff shortages.
Nowhere is this more evident than resorts and hotels in heavily seasonal destinations, such as Maine and Vermont, where tourism is the number one industry, or Michigan’s Mackinac Island, which has just 500 residents year-round but employs 3,000 people during the summer months while welcoming up to 15,000 visitors per day.
Fortunately, the American Hotel & Lodging Association and the H-2B Workforce Coalition, which we co-chair, recently helped score a victory on behalf of hotels and resorts in these and other seasonal destinations. Thanks in part to the AHLA-led coalition’s efforts to lobby the Biden Administration and Congress to raise the H-2B visa cap, the U.S. Departments of Labor (DOL) and Homeland Security (DHS) announced on March 31 that they will release an additional 35,000 visas for the busy summer season, which began April 1. This action more than doubles the number of visas that are typically available and came after a December announcement in which—for the first time ever—DOL and DHS released an additional 20,000 visas for the winter season.
These actions suggest that the Biden Administration recognizes the acute workforce shortages our industry is facing. And while the additional H-2B visas are worth celebrating, they are a temporary solution to the broader workforce challenges hotels face. We expect the incredibly tight labor market to continue, and there continue to be tens of thousands of open jobs in hotels across the country. Consider the facts:
The national unemployment rate fell to 3.6 percent in March—returning to similar labor market conditions we saw in the year leading up to the pandemic. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the broader leisure and hospitality sector is down by 1.47 million jobs, or 8.7 percent, compared to February 2020.
Congress created the H-2B visa program allowing employers with a strong seasonal component to fill essential jobs with temporary legal guest workers when they cannot find American workers. Although H-2B workers account for a tiny fraction of the total workforce, the program is vital to the operations of many businesses, such as seasonal resorts and hotels, landscapers, and amusement parks.
Before applying for the program, employers must prove they have conducted extensive recruiting efforts and still cannot find local U.S. workers to fill these seasonal jobs. DOL then certifies the need for legal guest workers and sets the prevailing wage these workers are to be paid, ensuring H-2B workers don’t undercut American workers or job seekers.
Currently, the H-2B program is capped by Congress at 66,000 visas annually, with half coming in the summer months and a half during the winter. Demand far outweighs the available number of visas.
That’s why AHLA will keep pushing for legislation and policies that will help fill open jobs and keep us on the road to recovery. That includes advocating for Congress to permanently increase the number of H-2B visas available and to improve the program for those businesses that rely on it; pass comprehensive immigration reform; and expand apprenticeship programs that will help train the next generation.
We’re also working at the state and local level to ensure onerous workforce ordinances and regulations don’t stand in the way of our industry’s recovery. In the meantime, AHLA and its charitable arm the AHLA Foundation are continually working to help hoteliers attract and hire diverse candidates and strengthen the hospitality talent pipeline. Earlier this year, the AHLA Foundation launched “A Place to Stay,” a multi-channel national ad campaign to attract new talent into our industry. The campaign targets job seekers who are looking for a robust career with unique perks and benefits and celebrates all that hospitality has to offer.
The hardworking women and men of hospitality are the backbone of our industry. They keep our operations running, provide superior customer service, and strive to deliver memorable experiences for every guest, every time. Filling open jobs is the hotel industry’s top priority, and AHLA will continue working on all fronts to help hoteliers do that while staying on the road to recovery.