The Hotel Viking used to fill its many summer job openings with foreign workers temporarily performing labor through the federal government’s H-2B work-visa program. Now the hotel is using foreign students under a different program, called J-1, and General Manager Mark P. Gervais couldn’t be happier.
“We got so fed up with the H-2B that we stopped using it,” Gervais said. “We used it for many, many years, but there were just too many hoops to jump through. We tried J-1 last year and loved it, so we have 15 students coming this year.”
Once a staple of the Ocean State’s tourism and hospitality industries, the H-2B visa program has, in the opinion of some local businesses, become too expensive and burdensome to use. Interest in the program is waning due to stricter regulations; it is becoming obsolete and is slowly being replaced by the J-1 student program.
Gervais said the problem doesn’t lie with the H-2B workers, but the program’s associated costs, paperwork and red tape. “With J-1, the paperwork was less and the workers were great. We were thrilled with the results,” he said.
H-2B visas allow companies to temporarily hire foreign workers to perform nonagricultural labor on a one-time, seasonal basis. H-2B workers are commonly allowed to work for less than one year and can petition to extend their stay. Ultimately, workers must then leave the United States for at least three months before seeking readmission.
Last year, the U.S. Department of State published new rules to the program, requiring wage increases for all visa carriers and extensive documentation practices. The wage increase differs depending on the job but requires participating companies to pay higher than the prevailing wage rate for the specific task, varying for each specific job.
American companies, including the hospitality industry, have challenged the rule. On April 25, a lawsuit in Florida successfully blocked the changes until at least November. A second case, pitting the American Hotel & Lodging Association against the changes, was filed in Louisiana and is still pending.
The National Hotel on Block Island has abandoned the program for the J-1 visa as well. “We used to use the H-2B program and loved it,” said Julie Fuller, general manager of the hotel, “but we stopped because the process became time consuming and expensive.” As with Gervais, she also commented on the high quality of employees. Fuller, however, has five students arriving this summer on the J-1 program. “We liked the H-2B because it gave us greater flexibility to bring people over at different times of the year. Students don’t have that flexibility, but the H-2B still wasn’t worth it,” she said.