Hoteliers pin hopes on visas to fill gaps, drive investment

As the hotel industry continues to grapple with one of the toughest labor markets it’s faced to date, work visas have become all the more important to fill staffing gaps.

“Work visas are critical because many can’t find labor,” said outgoing AAHOA Chair Vinay Patel. “It’s not about trying to pay low wages because a lot of us are paying higher wages now. We can’t find workers. We have to find different ways to bring workers in to fill the labor shortage.”

The U.S. government has taken note. The Senate and House passed a $1.5 trillion government-funding package in March. In addition to providing nearly $14 billion in emergency humanitarian security and economic support for Ukraine and the United States’ Central European allies, the omnibus spending package gives the departments of Homeland Security and Labor the ability to increase the number of H-2B visas available in fiscal year 2022. 

The government also reauthorized the EB-5 visa program through September 2027. EB-5 visas enable those investing in American businesses to obtain green cards. According to the National Law Review, the reauthorization includes several changes to the program, such as imposing various oversight requirements. These include requiring each center to notify the Department of Homeland Security of proposed changes to the center's structure, maintain certain records and make such records available to DHS for audits, obtain approval for each particular investment offering and annually report to the DHS. 

Conversely, union leaders have argued that the EB-5 program is unfair to local workers, especially immigrants, who need jobs and an equitable way to gain legal immigration status. Stephen Yale-Loehr, a Cornell University professor of immigration law, told the Los Angeles Times last month that some developers have fraudulently taken the foreign investments and failed to develop the projects and the jobs that were promised.


The H-2B visa program allows U.S. businesses to employ foreign workers for temporary nonagricultural jobs. As of press time, the program is capped at 66,000 visas annually—half in the summer and half in the winter. Brian Crawford, executive VP for government affairs, American Hotel & Lodging Association, noted that most H-2B visas go to the landscaping industry, with all other industries competing for the remainder.

“Businesses wishing to apply for this program must have a strong seasonal component and complete a very competitive application process. Employers must prove that they have conducted extensive recruiting efforts and still cannot find local U.S. workers to fill these seasonal jobs,” Crawford said. “The U.S. Department of Labor then certifies the need for legal guest workers and sets the prevailing wage these workers are to be paid, ensuring H-2B workers don’t undercut American workers or job seekers.”

For the first time ever, Crawford said that Homeland Security and Labor released an additional 20,000 visas for the fiscal year 2022 winter season (Oct. 1, 2021-March 31, 2022). They also made available an additional 22,000 supplemental H-2B visas for returning qualified workers who previously had participated in the program or were from certain countries. DHS announced that it stopped accepting applications for the fiscal year 2022 summer season (April 1-Sept. 30, 2022) on Feb. 25. As of press time, they have not made any announcements about additional or supplemental visas for the summer season.

Visa Process

Acquiring such visas hasn’t always been easy for hoteliers, and Crawford said that today’s labor shortage has made the process all the more difficult. “That’s why the best thing employers can do is ask their Congressional representatives to support the Returning Worker Exemption Act. The bill would help strengthen the program and make it easier for employers to participate,” he said.

Dan Paola, VP of operations at Raines Co., has used various work visas throughout the past 15 years. “In the past, visas had a lot to do with seasonality,” he said. “We used some to augment some of the busier seasons. It helps manage labor by not having to hire so many people and furlough or terminate. It stabilizes the workforce.”

However, he noted that it’s been a struggle the past two years without the visas: “It’s going to be a necessary thing moving forward, especially in markets we operate in that have a high leisure season. For whatever reason people haven’t returned to the workforce—whether they retired or have gone back to school or they’re working at Amazon or gig economy jobs with flexibility. These folks [on visas] come with one mission and that’s to work and make money.”

Paola has contracted for about 60 employees throughout Raines’ portfolio to work on H-2B visas. He noted that these workers aren’t meant to replace existing labor, but they are an addition to the current staff throughout the peak season. He outlined the three biggest lessons he’s learned when it comes to leveraging such work visas:

  1. Have the right sponsorship from the start: The right sponsor or partnership when applying for the visas is critical. It can be tricky to navigate the process and how to gain access to the right pool. Raines has had a partner for years. Through that partnership, it is able to get resumes to find the best fit for open roles.
  2. Manage expectations: Paola said that workers on visas come to work as many hours as they can. It’s up to hoteliers to make sure they have a true understanding of what’s expected and that they aren’t disappointing these employees by overpromising or not managing expectations appropriately. He said hoteliers also must understand any cultural differences with the workers in order to help manage expectations.
  3. Understand the responsibility for employees: Will these seasonal employees require housing or transportation? Paola said that in some markets these visa programs might not be a good fit because there isn’t housing or public transportation nearby. Where Raines has seen the most success is in markets where the company has clusters of hotels. Workers can walk to properties within the cluster as well as nearby shops, restaurants and grocery stores. Some workers may stay on-property at a hotel, at an extended-stay property with negotiated rates, or the sponsor has found housing.

At the end of the day, it’s clear work visas like H-2B are essential for the hotel industry now more than ever before. “Historically, the H-2B visa program has served as an important and necessary tool for hospitality businesses to fill seasonal positions and ensure the quality service and amenities their guests expect and deserve,” Crawford said. “It’s even more critical today, with the tightest labor market in decades. While we always look first to the U.S. workforce to fill critical job functions during peak seasons, the H-2B program helps small seasonal businesses recruit for hard-to-fill seasonal roles.”