Louria Meyu, 23, from Malaysia, is working this summer at Beans and Greens Farm in Gilford, one of the seven interns at the farm through the J-1 visa program. Meyu's family in Malaysia grows rice and black pepper. She wanted to come to Gilford, "to try something new. I wanted to learn about vegetables we don't have in my country." (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)
International workers are critical to many Lakes Region businesses
By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
At Beans and Greens Farm in Gilford, there's a sign behind the farm stand that reads "Beans and Greens employees have come from all over the world." The post below the sign is filled with directionals, pointing to more than a countries.
Martina Howe said Beans and Greens has been utilizing international workers for at least 30 years – since the Howes were dairy farmers. Beans and Greens connects with foreign workers through the J-1 visa program, designed for internship opportunities. Through the program, the Howes are obligated to house the interns as well as educate them. On top of that, the Howes pay their interns the same rate that they would a comparable local worker.
This year, Beans and Greens has seven interns. They come from Columbia, Brazil, Russia and Malaysia, and join about a dozen local workers on the farm this summer.
Howe enjoys the opportunity to meet young people from around the world and help them lean about agriculture. And without the extra help, Beans and Greens would have a hard time finding enough local people willing to do the job.
"It would be a real struggle," she said.
With the state's unemployment rate below 3 percent for more than a year, most local businesses have a difficult time filling all of their positions. Seasonal operations are at a further disadvantage, said Cythia Makris, owner of The Naswa Resort on Weirs Boulevard in Laconia.
"It's harder when you're seasonal. You can't compete with year-round businesses," said Makris.
The Naswa began bringing in international workers about 25 years ago, through the H-2B visa program. All of The Naswa's international workers come from Jamaica, and this year Makris is employing 51 workers from the Caribbean island nation. They will make up about a third of her staff, she said.
"Sometimes people think that you are hiring these workers for cheap labor. It's quite the opposite," said Makris. To get the workers to The Naswa, Makris hires an immigration attorney in Miami, Florida, to file the petitions with the federal government, pays the fees to file the visa petitions, pays for round-trip airfare for each worker, and houses them all. The wage that she pays them is set by the government. The overall cost is considerably greater than hiring a local worker.
"It is expensive to do this program, but it guarantees that we will have employees," she said. Even with the Jamaican workers, who will mostly work in housekeeping or in the kitchen, Makris worries that she won't be able to find enough local workers to fill the rest of her positions.
"Some people think that they're taking jobs from Americans. We can't fill these positions. We've had to find alternative solutions," she said.
The local labor shortage is no surprise to Karmen Gifford, executive director of the Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce.
"There are still more jobs than there are job seekers," she said. In addition to the above businesses, Gifford mentioned a few other resorts that look beyond the national border to fill their staff.
"I know they all rely on that because they can't fill all the positions they have," said Gifford, praising the businesses to pursue the visa programs, despite the extra cost and complications. "I give kudos to those businesses ... They're strategic. I think it's awesome that we have strategic businesses here, it's helping them to succeed."
Not all local businesses are so fortunate, though. The H-2B program is limited to 66,000 visas nationally, divided into 33,000 for each six-month period. This year, no doubt driven by the tight labor market, saw a spike in petitions that quickly exhausted the available petitions. That left many employers, such as Sim Willey, wondering how they are going to make it through the season.
Willey, owner-operator of Hart's Turkey Farm in Meredith, said he had been hiring workers through the H-2B program since the 1980s. He filed petitions for 20 foreign workers this year but wasn't able to get any. Worrying about his staffing problem has kept him up at night, he said.
"I does definitely impact us," said Willey. At the height of the season, Hart's will employ 250 people, a mix of full- and part-time workers, said Willey. The loss of the 20 international workers won't negatively impact the restaurant's day-to-day operations, he said, but he will likely have to turn down some large, lucrative catering orders due to the lack of staff.
Anyone who is looking for work is welcome to apply at Hart's, said Willey.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the continuing resolution signed into law on May 5 authorizes the Trump administration to double the number of H-2B visas for the 2017 fiscal year, and that lawmakers are urging the heads of the Homeland and Labor Departments to move quickly to do so. In the meantime, Willey is hoping to get a little more help by extending the visas of workers who are already working in the country.
"We just don't have enough full-time residents to support businesses," he said. "We need help from J-1 or H-2B, those types of programs."
Many of the 51 workers that The Naswa is hiring through the H-2B visa program have already arrived. Cynthia Makris, owner of The Naswa, said she struggles to fill the remaining 90 positions from the local labor pool. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)