EH Town Board Writes Washington For Help

Businesses in the Gosman’s complex in Montauk are wrestling with a shortage of workers for the second consecutive year. Independent/T. E. McMorrow
Businesses in the Gosman’s complex in Montauk are wrestling with a shortage of workers for the second consecutive year. Independent/T. E. McMorrow

East Hampton Town, due to recent decisions to limit the number of foreign workers allowed to enter the U.S., has been facing a shortage of qualified workers that become essential during the bustling summer season. The East Hampton Town Board agreed last week to send Congressman Lee Zeldin and Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand each a letter, asking for relief.

The shortage, Town Board Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said last week, is particularly acute in Montauk, though it affects the entire town. The visas apply to specialized non-agricultural workers who staff businesses such as motels, or fish wholesale markets, or restaurants. The workers are considered non-immigrants, who are here for a specific time, then return home. The workers enter the country temporarily on what are called H-2B work visas.

Under President Donald Trump, the number of workers allowed into the country under the program has been reduced to 66,000 for the past two years, down from the 83,000 issued in 2017, forcing businesses into a nationwide lottery system, in which some win, and some lose.

“I urge you to support immediate action on the program to ensure that these businesses can assemble critical summer season work forces in a timely manner,” the letter, generated by the office of Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc, and signed by town board members, reads.

“Three elements of the H-2B Visa Program are negatively impacting East Hampton businesses: the annual quota/cap on the number of visas issued, and the lottery procedure; the lack of an expedited process or exemption for returning workers, and — particularly this year, following the government shutdown — delays in issuing visas that leave business owners unsure of staffing until late February or March, or even later into the spring.”

The letter calls upon the Washington, D.C. lawmakers to provide exemptions for foreign workers who been compliant with the law, previously leaving the country when their visa expired. These workers have all passed background checks, the letter notes.

The Independent reported on the H-2B worker shortage last spring. Gosman’s Wholesale Fish Market and Gosman’s Restaurant were two of the businesses impacted last year. Bryan Gosman, one of the owners and managers of Gosman’s Wholesale Fish Market, talked again about the shortage of workers this week.

He explained there are certain jobs, like cleaning and deboning fish, that the usual influx of student workers into the East End during the summer season don’t have the interest or skillset to accomplish. Many of the H-2B workers at the wholesale market hail from Jamaica, where fish is a common food staple.

Last year, he said, the wholesale market lost in the lottery, and workers who had worked there in previous years were barred from returning. However, Gosman’s Restaurant won the 2018 H-2B visa lottery, and its workers from previous years were allowed back in.

This year, the situation is reversed. The restaurant lost the lottery, while the wholesale market won. The former now will have to scramble for workers, while management at the wholesale market will have to decide what to do with their sudden glut of employees, between the H-2B workers, and those hired to fill in last year. “It’s a mess,” Gosman said.

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, whose family owns the Breakers Motel in Montauk, is very familiar with the shortage of qualified workers from his experience at the Old Montauk Highway resort. The problem is not as acute in Southampton, he said last week, where there are far fewer motels, but he voiced support for the East Hampton Town Board’s action, and said he would bring the matter up himself at the next meeting of the East End Supervisors and
Mayors Association, which he chairs.

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