Worker supply problems still trigger the Cape Cod restaurants

The Massachusetts Statehouse. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Zhihan Yang
Boston University Statehouse Program

BOSTON – Restaurants on Cape Cod still face both foreign and domestic worker supply problems heading into the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a popular travel destination, businesses on the Cape hire about 20,000 to 25,000 seasonal workers annually. Among them, 3,000 to 5,000 are foreign workers coming through the H-2B and J-1 visa programs, according to Paul Niedzwiecki, the CEO of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. 

“COVID-19 … [caused] a lot of international travel restrictions that have stopped people from being able to travel freely,” Niedzwiecki said. “We have also seen a significant decrease in the number of foreign worker visas that are available given the hard stop put on the foreign visa program.”

The H-2B visa is for non-agricultural workers, and the J-1 visa is for participants of study or work exchange programs.  

While there is no quota for J-1 visas, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services set an H-2B visa cap of 66,000 annually, of which 33,000 are for the first half of a fiscal year, and the other 33,000 are for the second half of the year. 

Employers must file applications and job offers 75 to 90 days before the start day of need. A lottery selection process decides the visas offered. 

“Every year there are more and more demands, and every year it’s harder … which sounds simple, but that’s the reality,” said George Lester, a partner at Fragomen, a law firm. 

Businesses on the Cape usually hire foreign workers from April to October, starting during the second half of a fiscal year.

“We apply for about 100 H-2B workers each year. We haven’t changed our application strategy or anything like that in many, many years,” said Sam Bradford, the CFO of Mac’s Seafood, which operates several restaurants and fish markets on the Cape. “But what happens each year is anybody’s guess. It’s really a crapshoot.”

In 2019, due to the “unlucky” outcome of the lottery and the border closure, Mac’s Seafood only hired 30 foreign workers, and none of those were from outside of the U.S., Bradford said. 

This year, the company was able to hire about 90 foreign workers as it “got lucky in the lottery,” Bradford said.

“If we don’t do well enough in the lottery [next year] in order to get enough staff, then the next decision that we begin making is which American workers do we lay off? And which locations do we keep open? Which locations do we close?” Bradford said. “Basically, we lose the season, and then we have to just move on and wait till the following year.”

In addition to the foreign worker shortage, businesses also faced domestic worker shortages. 

“In terms of the restaurant industry, there is a labor supply shortage across the state and across the industry,” said Steve Clark, vice president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association.

According to Bradford, Mac’s Seafood also faced difficulties hiring domestic year-round workers in the past summer.

“We were sort of OK in the positions that we historically have requested foreign workers for the cooks, dishwashers, housekeepers, and seafood packers … but we didn’t have enough people in general,” Bradford said.

“So we had to curtail our restaurant hours significantly. We were closed one day a weekend in our larger restaurants. And we had to cut back lunches during the week or several days a week. So we were not serving the public the way that we want to be able to serve the public.”

Kimberly Wilson, director of the UMass Dartmouth Labor Education Center, said that raising wages is a solution to the domestic labor shortage.

“I think when you look at the big picture of how many people have left after the pandemic, have hooked on to different jobs or left employment, I think that the key factor is people are not getting job satisfaction, being underpaid, and not feeling respected on the job,” Wilson said. “The jobs have to be better. That’s how you get people back.”

On the contrary, say Bradford and Clark, raising wages cannot help restaurants attract workers.

“I could put an ad in the paper tomorrow for $40 an hour for a dishwasher, and I guarantee you that I will get no responses,” Bradford said. “Doesn’t matter who you are. If you are an American national, you are not gonna come to work and wash dishes.”

According to Clark, the labor supply problem is not just an issue of the restaurant industry.

“I don’t know if just a blank check on wages is really going to solve the problem. I think actually there’s a number of people problems. You think of all the baby boomers that are retiring … they may have expedited their retirement because of the pandemic,” Clark said. “And so there’s just less workers in the workforce.” 

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