BRANSON, Mo. – A change out of Washington D.C. has businesses in Branson scrambling before the season.
An exemption in the H-2B Visa program – allowing temporary workers from other countries to come into tourist destinations – could leave hundreds of jobs in Branson unfilled in 2017, many of which are vital to the city.
“There is just such a tremendous shortage [of workers] in this area,” says Chateau on the Lake general manager, Stephen Marshall. “It’s not that we don’t want to hire locals, there’s just not enough.”
The Chateau, like many Branson businesses, relies on foreign workers to fill positions like service work, lawn car and housekeeping.
The “cap” on the total number of H-2B’s in the United States is currently 66,000 a year – 33,000 for winter businesses and 33,000 for those who operate in the summer.
Previously, there has been an exemption or caveat to the rule known as the “return worker” program.
The “return worker” program allowed H-2B employees who planned on returning to the states the following season for work to not be counted against the “cap” in the second year.
Lawmakers allowed the exemption to expire in September of 2016. Now businesses across the country are vying for a limited number of visas for temporary workers.
“It’s going to be a huge problem,” says Marshall. “It’s not just Chateau on the Lake that has that issue, it’s many other places in town.”
Marshall requested 24 H-2B’s in 2017, he’s been told he will get zero.
“We’re still putting numbers to it, but were talking hundreds [of empty positions] possibly and that’s a huge hit to Branson and the business community,” says Branson Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce President, Jeff Seifried.
Seifried says local lawmakers are trying to rally support in Washington because other tourist destinations are also feeling the pinch.
“We live and die by having a successful workforce in Branson,” he says, “and our ability to attract and utilize H-2B Visas is critical.”
Marshall says hiring temporary workers from another country comes at a cost. For example, a business is required to pay for travel expenses, provide per diem and assist with living arrangements.
However, he doesn’t believe funneling that money into higher hourly wages, as part of an effort to attract local help, would have much success.
“I would tell you, with a lot of confidence, let’s say I get approved from corporate office that we want to pay room attendants $15 an hour,” Marshall says.
“There’s people that just don’t want to do that work,” he says. “They just don’t want to do it.”
Part of the H-2B program requires that businesses post job opening locally before exploring their options in other countries.
Marshall says out of his 24 opening at Chateau on the Lake he received only one inquiry – a person living in Joplin, Missouri.
The Chamber says it is exploring several options including bringing in workers from Puerto Rico, where a visa isn’t required to get into the states.