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Strand faces a worker shortage

Lack's Beach Service, which employs many of the lifeguards along the beach during the summer, loves hiring workers from other countries. They can stay the whole season, they speak English well and they return year after year.

But this year, Lack's knows that at least a handful - and possibly some of the most experienced lifeguards - will not be returning, making it one of several businesses along the Grand Strand that will not be able to hire many legal foreign workers.

The federal program that provides visas for seasonal workers, called H-2B visas, has already reached its quota for the summer, and Congress did not renew a law that would have allowed returning workers to come back, even if the quota was filled.

"That has caused a huge problem," said Renelle Wolff, the training officer for the lifeguard and beach furniture company.

The beach is just the tip of the problem. It extends inland, to dozens of businesses serving the 14 million tourists who come to the Grand Strand annually.

This does not mean there will be no legal foreign workers here; there is still another visa program, the J-1 visa, but that is only available to students.

Still, the program is being curtailed at possibly the worst time for the Grand Strand, when a new employer - Hard Rock Park - is about to break onto the scene looking for 3,000 workers.

Some members of Congress have asked President Bush to use his executive power to open up the program again.

It may be too late for some companies, and employers say they need to make other plans.

Any employer who wanted to hire seasonal workers starting May 1 and into the summer is out of luck. That's because the government only starts taking applications for visas 120 days in advance - and the quota for the summer was reached Jan. 2.

There are no hard numbers available for how many foreign workers come to Myrtle Beach every year. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service does not track how many visas are issued, and the State Department only tracks workers by sector, not geographically.

Many workers are placed through employment agencies, so it would be difficult to say where they ended up, said Cy Ferenchak, a spokesman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Employers across the country are trying to come to terms with the shortage, according to news reports. Hotel and spa owners met in Montauk, N.Y., earlier this month to brainstorm solutions. Ski resorts in Vermont and California are having trouble finding workers this winter.

Most of the foreigners who fan across the nation come to work at hotels, in restaurants or in landscaping, Ferenchak said.

In Myrtle Beach, they take jobs as receptionists, kitchen workers, bellhop staff, bartenders, housekeepers and maintenance workers, to name a few.

This year, Hard Rock Park, a theme park that opens in April, will employ 3,000 people during the high season, catapulting it to No. 2 in the list of top employers in the county.

Unemployment in Horry County is expected to tick down to 4.7 percent and the number of jobs is expected to increase to 133,800 in 2008, according to calculations from Coastal Carolina University economic researcher Don Schunk.

"It has been a real challenging time just in the last few years to find enough workers," Schunk said. Without the seasonal workers, "it just gets that much harder."

Frans Mustert, president of Oceana Resorts, a group of several Myrtle Beach-area hotels, said he would rather hire local workers because it's much less of a hassle.

The visa program requires employers to first prove that there's a labor shortage in the area before turning to foreign workers, make sure the workers pay taxes and pay them fair market wages.

Plus, employers have to go through several layers of bureaucracy and meet deadlines, and even then there are not enough visas to go around.

The government placed a cap on the program, allowing only 33,000 workers every six months to come in. In 2005, Congress changed the program and allowed returning workers to be exempt from the cap, but that was a temporary fix that expired in September.

The visa problem was lost in the immigration fight, even though it did not belong in the middle of it in the first place, Mustert said.

"Guest workers basically come and go," he said. "They're not going to stay here. They're not a burden on the economy. It has nothing to do with immigration, it's just a visa."

Of the 126 foreign workers Mustert hired for the season last year, two did not return to their home country, he said.

Employers are trying to figure out what to do for the summer. There are job fairs scheduled over the next few weeks - earlier than usual, said Pauline Levesque, executive director of the Myrtle Beach Area Hospitality Association.

Still, for employers such as Lack's Beach Service, the loss will be felt. The company will not be able, for example, to hire some of the Australian workers who have already proven themselves.

"They are excellent swimmers, excellent lifeguards and they're great employees. To have them return, they're already trained, makes it a lot easier, saves money," Wolff said. "It's a huge loss."

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