H-2B hospitality workers in limbo for summer season

Some are here with no work while others wait in their homelands for clearance to come here.
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Todd Callewaert owns several hospitality businesses on Mackinac Island. He said tourism to the island might drop by as much as 60% this year. Courtesy Island Photo

The tourism and hospitality industries are reeling from the effects of the coronavirus, and as a result, immigrants with working visas and those who are waiting in their home countries for their guest worker visas are between a rock and a hard place.

Kim Clarke, partner and immigration attorney for Varnum LLP, said the Department of Homeland Security authorized an additional 10,000 H-2B temporary non-agricultural worker visas.

However, Clarke said processing has been suspended because of the pandemic. The Business Journal previously reported that the current cap for H-2B visas is 66,000.

While visas are pending for individuals in other countries, there are immigrants with H-2B guest worker visas in the U.S. who, like U.S. citizens, have fallen victim to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Todd Callewaert owns several businesses on Mackinac Island: Island House Hotel, Starbucks, Seabiscuit Café, Mary’s Bistro, Pancake House & Grille and Ryba’s Fudge Shop, as well as rental properties. He said he and his family have been hiring immigrants with H-2B visas for 25 years to do seasonal jobs.

“We don’t have the local pool of workers on Mackinac Island,” he said. “There are about 500 people on Mackinac and in the surrounding areas the population is about 10,000 people, so we don’t have the local pool. We have to draw from someplace else. We look for people in Michigan and not many people want to come to Mackinac to work a seasonal job for six months and go back home. There are not a lot of American workers who want to do that. So, that was when we decided to use the guest worker program. These jobs are housekeeping, lawn cutting, groundskeeping, dishwashing and prep cooks. Those are the positions they fill. We also employ other American workers so we can open. About 12% of our staff are foreign nationals and the rest are American workers.”

Callewaert said normally his businesses would open on May 1, but because of the pandemic and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, they have not been able to open and as a result he has cut staff from 250 to 113.

Callewaert said he does have foreign nationals who are on the island, but they are not able to work because paperwork still needs to be completed and due to the suspension of immigration services they are unable to do so.

Clarke said H-2B visas are valid for three years, but employers have individual contractual agreements with each immigrant for up to 10 months. Clarke said generally H-2B visa holders cannot file for unemployment.

“Historically, the way unemployment would work is you cannot collect unemployment if you are not available for other work,” she said. “Work visas are seen as employer specific and that means that you are not available for other work and it would be denied. Part of the coronavirus relief response and benefits is that workers are generally eligible for unemployment without regard to whether or not they are available for other positions. So that consideration has been removed in many states. Unemployment is processed on a state-by-state basis. It is uncertain whether that availability requirement would then make H-2B visa holders eligible. Most likely not, but there is still some uncertainty with how the coronavirus relief has been implemented in some states.”

Callewaert said 1 million people visit Mackinac Island annually, but now he would be happy if the vacation spot drew 400,000 this year.

While the fate of foreign workers is in the hands of the government, Callewaert said he believes more American workers will want to work on Mackinac Island once the governor’s order is lifted and the tourism industry opens up because the country’s economy will take some time to get back to normal.

The national unemployment rate in April was 14.7% and over 20 million people filed for unemployment. The percentages were even worse in Michigan.

Peter Beukema, the CEO of Suburban Inns and a board member of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, said his business was tracking a 5% annual revenue increase before the pandemic hit.

By the week of March 9, however, he said managed corporate travel accounts already were canceling their visits.

“Over that week we had, companywide, over $1 million in cancelations in March for March,” he said. “For groups that were booked in April, there were over $1 million in cancelations just for that month. It was a big hit for a small hotel and restaurant company like ourselves. It put us in kind of a scramble mode and we (had to) weather the storm. At that time, we had 773 employees and we were starting to hire for our summer help. Currently, we have a little over 650 of those employees furloughed. I never dreamed that I would have to lay off 84% of my team. We are providing health insurance for all the team members who had health insurance before. We are optimistic that they will all come back, but the timing is out of our control.”

He said Suburban Inns in the past has been unsuccessful in hiring H-2B workers and he doesn’t expect that to change when the executive orders are lifted.

Beukema and his family have eight hotels: Holiday Inn in Midland; Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Courtyard by Marriott and City Flats in Holland; Holiday Inn Express in Grandville; and Embassy Suites by Hilton and Hilton Garden Inn in Grand Rapids. They also own nine different food and beverage outlets.

“We are optimistic that business will come back and we will be able to do good in the summer because we rely on the summer months in the industry,” he said. “Statewide, our industry relies on the summer months to take us through the winter. My heart pours out to all of our brothers and sisters in the hospitality business that are north of Grand Rapids.”

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