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Worker shortage grows as number of internationals restricted

Several years into a widespread worker shortage, local businesses are resorting to drastic measures to fill open positions, including offering higher pay rates, bonuses and benefits, and hiring international workers.

However, one popular visa for seasonal workers recently became scarce, adding to difficulties for some area resorts to fill positions.

Ben Thuringer, managing director at Madden's on Gull in East Gull Lake, said H2-B visas - which some local resorts use to fill seasonal positions - have become significantly reduced in the United States with the expiration of a 2016 "returning worker exemption." That exemption allowed legal workers with H2-B visas to go home during the off season and return to the United States to work.

Due to the expiration of the exemption, many workers returned to their home countries but were not allowed to come back to work.

"There were about 169,000 in the country working and it reduced that back to about 66,000," Thuringer said.

The expiration almost cost Madden's 58 workers, though Thuringer said cooperation with a Florida resort that has its off-season during the summer allowed Madden's to mitigate the damage.

"What we have done is we have 58 employees stuck overseas that had been working at Madden's, some of them for 15 years," Thuringer said. "We've been working with this program for 17 years. What we've done is we've been able to backfill with H2-B employees who were already in country. They came from Florida. We were able to fill about half of the void."

David Spizzo, Breezy Point Resort vice president/owner, said that resort saw a bigger impact from the visa shortage.

"We had arranged for 25 H2s and right now we've only ended up with four," Spizzo said. "Right now we are about 21 people short in our housekeeping department. We are desperately trying to fill it with Americans but we aren't having any luck."

In a time when healthcare facilities are competing against fast food establishments to attract workers, being a seasonal industry makes it harder to fill vacancies, said Thuringer and Spizzo, who both said they would gladly hire their full staff from the local workforce, if the local workforce was more interested in seasonal work.

"Our season starts at the end of March or beginning of April and extends to mid-October," Spizzo said. "For us to depend on college or high school staff is not realistic. We still utilize them whenever we can get them. Having seasonal staff that can help us throughout the entire season is obviously beneficial, but when the unemployment rate is as low as it is, a lot of the staff is working year-round. That leaves seasonal businesses such as ourselves at a significant disadvantage."

"It's a lack of a labor pool," Thuringer said.

Just like other local businesses, the resorts have seen the labor pool shrinking in the last six years.

"In March of 2009 at our annual job fair we had 300 people walk through our door," Spizzo said. "That was pretty good. We were proud of that. March 2017, 12 people showed up. The hospitality business in the Brainerd lakes area is cyclical. When the economy is flying high we have all the business we can get but we struggle to find the staff. Alternatively, when the economy is slow we can find plenty of staff but don't necessarily have all the business we want. You know it's bad when businesses are utilizing billboards on 371 to say, "Now Hiring" instead of offering the services they offer. That speaks volumes on the state of employment in the Brainerd lakes area at this moment."

It is for these reasons that resorts turn to international workers. Spizzo and Thuringer specified that the workers they hire are not the (sometimes illegal) immigrant workers who can be so controversial between political parties.

"For people who hate illegal immigration, they should absolutely love this program," Spizzo said. "Every single person who crosses the border is vetted by the U.S. Embassy. They can't bring a family with them. They aren't on any type of government assistance and they must go home. If they don't go home they are ultimately arrested and processed."

"It's important to take note this is not a form of immigration," Thuringer said. "These are highly vetted individuals that have been coming many years. It's just to fill a seasonal void."

Hiring international workers is not a cost savings to local resorts either.

"To get H2-B visas, they are incredibly expensive," Spizzo said. "We have to pay for the visa, the travel, just about everything to make it happen. We have to pay for the company to line everything up. When people are not aware, they think we are bringing in foreign labor just to save money. That's about as far from the truth as possible. Give us Americans any day of the week, but we just can't find enough Americans."

Spizzo said Americans also tend to have their own dependable transportation and a familiarity with local culture, making American workers both cheaper and more convenient.

In addition, the resorts must demonstrate a need and a shortage to be granted H2-B visas. A visa holder can be hired as a line cook, for example, but that same visa holder cannot then work in any other field.

There are also J1 visa workers at Madden's, Breezy Point Resort, Cragun's Resort in East Gull Lake and Grand View Lodge in Nisswa, but those visa workers operate with different regulations. They must be students and they can only work four months. J1 visas are not facing the same shortage, but the limited work time they allow makes them ill suited to some positions at the bigger resorts.

To make due with the current workforce, Breezy Point Resort and Madden's are having international workers do double shifts.

"Basically what it is resulting in is a lot of overtime," Thuringer said. "The staff gets tired as well. They work 80-100 hours per week, and they'll do it for seven months, so our quality did not suffer. We aren't downsizing at all."

There are already efforts in motion to seek a resolution to the H2-B visa shortage. Spizzo and Thuringer met with state and federal lawmakers recently to make sure local voices are heard. They learned that the shortage is not only international, but also bipartisan.

"The entire thing has bipartisan support," Thuringer said. "We had 83 Congressional members sign on to it. Everyone wants it done, but those who came to the table to sign on were (Sen. Amy) Klobuchar and (Rep. Rick) Nolan."

"Not to hold our breath, but we are waiting to see. It's in the Department of the Secretary of Homeland Security," Spizzo said. "He has the ability to increase the cap, so we are waiting to see if he sees the need. Then that's it."

President Trump gave Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly authority to raise the number of H2-B visas. Local resorts and other industries wait to see how the issue might be resolved.