As tourist destinations across the nation, including Hilton Head Island, struggle to fill job openings, the Department of Homeland Security announced Monday that it will offer an additional 15,000 temporary, seasonal work visas this budget year.
The increase represents a 45 percent bump from the number of H-2B visas normally issued for the second half of the fiscal year, said senior Homeland Security officials in a call with reporters Monday.
The extra H-2B visas are for workers from other countries taking seasonal jobs in seafood, tourism and other industries — but not agricultural laborers.
Businesses must first attest that they would suffer permanent “irreparable harm” without the foreign workers and will be required to retain documents proving that they would not otherwise be able to meet their contractual obligations, officials said.
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In Beaufort County, and Hilton Head Island specifically, the increase in visas could mean a significant boost in workers, alleviating some of the area’s shortage of low-wage employees.
The H-2B visa program and the J-1 program, which connects international students with island jobs, bring about 700 foreign workers to Hilton Head Island every year.
“As we’re constantly challenging ourselves to increase our service levels ... and occupancy grows to record levels, it’s critical we have a well-trained workforce, and that’s what H-2B brings to the table,” said Jay Wiendl, general manager at Sonesta Resort.
“As we all know, there’s a labor shortage on Hilton Head Island, and it’s ever more important to have these (H-2B) associates to work with us,” Wiendl said.
In May, the number of job openings in Beaufort County rose to its highest number in the last year — 2,263 openings, up by nearly 150 from May 2016.
The tourism industry accounts for most of the county’s occupational openings — such as retail salespeople, food prep supervisors and servers, and housekeepers.
Alan Wolf, director of operations for the SERG restaurant group, said resorts are more likely to hire seasonal workers than restaurants are, but he explained that the entire island economy is interconnected.
“While resorts may rely on visa workers more than our restaurant group, it helps the entire workforce,” Wolf said. “Quantity is one of the solutions to this workforce shortage, and whenever you put more available workers in the market, it’s going to help everyone.”
Current law limits the number of H-2B visas issued nationally to 66,000 a year — split among two halves of the year. The cap has already been reached this year. Visas for more than 120,000 positions have been requested so far in fiscal 2017, according to Department of Labor statistics.
President Donald Trump’s golf resorts in Palm Beach and Jupiter, Fla., have used H-2B visas to hire temporary workers.
“I’ve hired in Florida during the prime season. You could not get help,” Trump said during a 2015 primary debate. “Everybody agrees with me on that. They were part-time jobs. You needed them, or we just might as well close the doors, because you couldn’t get help in those hot, hot sections of Florida.”
Though Trump has taken a hard line on immigration, legal and otherwise, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said the decision to add visas was a “demonstration of the administration’s commitment to supporting American businesses.”
Kelly described the additional visas as a “one-time extension” of the visa cap set by Congress.
A notice about the extra H-2B visas will be posted later this week in the Federal Register.
Tracy Jan of The Washington Post and Alicia A. Caldwell of the Associated Press contributed to this report.