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US Island Whose Economy Relies on Seasonal Workers is Worried

April 2017, 01
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US Island Whose Economy Relies on Seasonal Workers
The island of Martha’s Vineyard, just off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, USA, is a case study of the current concerns of seasonal US micro-economies.

It’s the 58th largest island off the United States with a permanent population of just over 16,000 and a seasonal summer population of over 100,000. Its economy relies on tourism and seasonal residents who spend their summers on the island. Attracting many celebrities and affluent vacationers, low-wage jobs on the island double during the busy season attracting many temporary workers. It’s worth noting that low-wages for Martha’s Island tend to be higher than low-wages on the mainland.

Employers use H-2B and J-1 visa’s to hire their temporary workforce for the income rich months of the year. Foreign workers travel from across the globe to fulfill low-wage roles during the peak season. These employers are now concerned caps to the H-2B scheme will leave them short of workers and are rushing to hire available candidates. The H-2B visa allows 66,000 workers to visit and work in the US for six months. Previously those workers who returned for the second year were not included in the figures, however, this policy has not been extended, leaving the number of workers available short. The J-1 visa is an exchange system for foreign students to live and work in the US for a temporary six-month period.

This year’s cap for summer – 33,000 allocated to the summer season and the remainder the winter season – was reached on March 13. Leaving any employers who had not petitioned for visa holders, in the required 90 days before they are due to start work, risking not making the cap.

Member of Congress William Keating has filed legislation to bring back the policy exemption for returning workers and a carry-over system for any unused visa allocation from a previous season.

Employers are frustrated with their staffing concerns which have been aggravated this year by caps, changes to policy and rumours of further change. There are few adults under retirement age available and willing to obtain low-skilled service sector positions on Martha’s island where the tourist and the seasonal economy has been thriving.  Many of the island's workers are returning workers who already know their jobs, employers and the island culture and have proved reliable in the past. These individuals work the entire season from April to October. US students are not available for the entire period, only their mid-summer vacation time.  There is also worry that foreign workers will be dissuaded by the current political climate in the US.

Congressman Keating, filing the amendment for returning workers for the second time, expects to hear in about three weeks. Worried Martha’s Island businesses will know at that point if they are going to struggle, and potentially miss out on valuable revenue, this summer season. 

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