Some of Martha's Vineyard's hardest working people haven't been able to make it back this season.

Credit: Kathy Barclay via

How The Lack Of H-2B Visas Is Affecting The Bottom Line At Martha's Vineyard

July 23, 2017

Untold numbers of delighted children have grabbed for the gold ring on the Flying Horses Carousel in the heart of Oak Bluffs. The nation’s oldest platform carousel — an official historic landmark — is a required stop for the children who visit the Vineyard. Meanwhile, a couple of blocks away, their parents and other vacationing adults, like me, flock to our unofficial must-see stop — Donovan’s Reef. Every summer, we line up here on the Oak Bluffs harbor for the tasty adult beverages mixed by Donovan at the open-air bar bearing his name.

You can’t miss the colorful Donovan’s Reef right next to the popular Nancy’s Restaurant and Snack Bar. There, the low-key Donovan blends, whirs and stirs providing a high-octane performance for the waiting crowd. He’s been a fixture here for 16 years. But, this season, when the hordes of visitors landed on the island, Donovan was thousands of miles away in his hometown, Negril, Jamaica. I knew Donovan was from Jamaica — the always-blaring reggae was an audible hint — but I never thought about what brought him to Martha’s Vineyard for the summer season.

Turns out Donovan was issued one of those H-2B visas. It’s a temporary work pass. Just 33,000 H-2B summer visas are available for the entire nation and they go quickly. According to Dave Gaffey, General Manager of Nancy’s Restaurant and Snack Bar which owns the bar, all the H-2B visas were claimed by mid-March. In past years the government would hear petitions every six months to lift the cap, and typically approve visas for a few thousand more workers. But this year the Trump administration rejected those petitions. That left Nancy’s Dave Gaffey scrambling to fill his service jobs with fewer interested, available and qualified people. And he’s worried the cobbled together staff won’t last the season because “everybody is working a lot more hours.”

At a time of tension about immigration issues, the H-2B visa program is a target for those who claim foreign workers are taking American jobs. Not true says Rep. William Keating, who represents the Cape and the Islands. Keating spent the last months petitioning the Department of Homeland Security to lift the cap stressing, “This is not an immigration issue, this is an economic issue.” A potentially devastating economic blow for resort areas like the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard, which swells from 17,000 to 100,000 for a few short weeks. That also includes the various resort properties owned by The Trump Organization which has long employed H2B visa grantees.

Hmm — I wonder if that fact had something to do with last week’s about face by the Department of Homeland Security. The Department approved a one-time increase of 15,000 additional H-2B visas for businesses that can prove “irreparable harm.” Back at Nancy’s General Manager Dave Gaffey says there is not enough time to get Donovan on the island before the end of the season. Hundreds of vacationers, including me, will not be ponying up to the bar to buy Donovan’s signature Dirty Banana and his other creative concoctions. Maybe that doesn’t constitute irreparable harm, but for sure, it’s a lot of damage to the bottom line.

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