Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) called on the Trump administration to reform the foreign guest worker programs. Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

East End businesses that rely on foreign workers supplied through a federal guest worker program are facing a labor crisis this summer unless the Trump administration takes immediate action to allow more workers to enter the country, according to business owners and Rep. Lee Zeldin.

Business owners joined Zeldin Wednesday morning at a nursery in Westhampton to urge the administration to immediately raise the cap on a non-agricultural guest worker visa program known as H-2B — a temporary fix that would allow local businesses to get the seasonal workforce they “desperately need.”

The H-2B visa program—capped at 66,000 visas for the current fiscal year and chosen via lottery twice a year — allows U.S. employers to hire foreign workers for temporary, non-agricultural jobs. H-2A visas are designed for seasonal agricultural workers and don’t have a cap. Both programs, said Zeldin, need to be reformed “permanently.”

Employers on the East End such as hotels, restaurants, nurseries, landscaping and construction companies, farms and others, are heavily reliant on these types of visas. The reason? There is a severe labor shortage, business owners and Zeldin said. That, combined with low unemployment, makes it impossible for them to find home-grown workers, putting in jeopardy their businesses and the local economy, they said.

“Business owners are very frustrated,” Zeldin said. “Here we are now in the middle of March, approaching peak season, and employers are unable to get workers.”

“If you employed every single able-bodied adult in the First Congressional District, you would still have many other jobs that are unfilled,” Zeldin said. “Unless you’re going to start putting 11-year-olds to work here on the East End, there’s no physical way with the people who live here to have enough individuals with the capability of filling these roles.”

Zeldin (R-Shirley).called on Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen to use her authority to raise the cap on the H-2B visa program, something he said is needed “yesterday,” to temporarily fix the problem.

However, labor shortages and issues with guest visas are ongoing problems that have plagued East End businesses for years.

Riverhead Councilwoman Jodi Giglio speaking at the a press conference called by Rep. Lee Zeldin Wednesday. Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

For farmers on the East End who rely on the H-2A visa program, this year the need is even greater. According to Long Island Farm Bureau representatives, regular applicants for jobs on East End farms went down about 40 percent this year, which combined with the guest worker program hurdles, only complicates the labor shortage issue.

“Right now we are affected tremendously because farmers are not able to hire staff to be able to start planting,” Long Island Farm Bureau director Rob Carpenter said. “Whether you’re a farm, a hotel, a restaurant, a resort, you name it, the businesses here on the East End need workers. This program will satisfy that need if it’s run properly.”

Similarly, Montauk Chamber of Commerce president Paul Monte said that H-2B visa program is “the lifeblood” of the East End economy, providing businesses with seasonal workers that are vital year after year.

Without them, he said, businesses would be forced to scale back on their services, and in some cases, even close their doors for good. He added that the program as it stands now, with the cap at 66,000 workers for the entire country, is not “realistic” and “does not come anywhere close to addressing the real need of businesses that depend upon it.”

That is something that the Trump administration has seemed to acknowledge the last couple of years when Nielsen raised the cap on H-2B visas in 2018 and 2017, after determining that there were not enough qualified U.S. workers to meet the needs of American employers. But, last year, the 15,000 additional worker visas that were approved were still not enough to meet the demand, and some employers were still not able to get seasonal workers.

According to the Department of Labor, this year, between Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, employers requested 96,400 H-2B visas for the second round of the program, a record number that even made the system crash, but only 33,000 visas were available. Zeldin estimated Wednesday that at least 115 companies have applied for about 1,000 H-2B visas in Suffolk County, but only a fraction of those applications have been granted.

“It’s such an important program and it’s something that needs to be addressed with the Trump administration,” Riverhead Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said. “[We need] to make sure that the workforce is brought here and the businesses are successful, and we continue to have our farms, and we continue to have our nurseries, that the restaurants fill up, that the hotels are full and the sheets are washed and the work that needs to be done is getting done.”

Zeldin and business owners also said that on top of the low number of visas available, congress should also reinstate the “returning worker” exemption program. This program, which expired in 2016, allowed workers who had previously been in the country on an H-2B visa to return the following year and be cap-exempt. With this exemption no longer available, employers that have been hiring the same seasonal workers for years are not guaranteed to be able to do so anymore.

Anthony Cardone of Riverhead, who owns a landscaping business. Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

Anthony Cardone of Riverhead, owner of AC Landscaping, who has been using the H-2B visa program for about a dozen years, agreed.

This year he applied for 10 seasonal workers, but even though he has been approved, the cap has been reached and he has been left out. He said he didn’t have as much of a problem with the program when the cap exemption existed, but since it expired, he is left to face an uncertain season year after year and has to rely on the small number of workers he is able to hire locally, which right now numbers three.

“The problem with this program is that there is very little planning I can do , i can only try to operate my business within the means of the employees that I have here,” he said, adding that the only solution for him was waiting for Nielsen to raise the cap.

Cardone said that this year, operating his business with only a fraction of the workforce he needs, will “potentially not [make him] able to fulfill contracts” and “not able to service his customers.” He also said his current workers will have to work overtime, affecting his business financially by adding another expense.

“They might have to work six, seven days a week, 16-hour days,” he said.

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Maria Piedrabuena
María, a multimedia reporter, graduated from Stony Brook University with degrees in journalism and women and gender studies. She has worked for several news outlets including News12 and Fortune Magazine. A native of Spain, she loves to read, write and travel. She lives in Manorville. Email Maria