Finding summer help proved to be easier than businesses thought it would be, even though there were fewer H2-B visa workers available this summer.

With Labor Day in sight and most agreeing it was a good summer, business owners should be breathing a little easier as they head into the shoulder season. But many are preparing to work even longer hours as they lose the bulk of their staff come September.

With fewer H2-B visa workers available this summer many local businesses relied heavily on the J-1 visa program, which brings students from abroad to the United States to work for short periods of time. Most of those workers come from Eastern Europe and have already started leaving to return to university in their respective countries. While this happens every summer many area businesses are stuck, as they don’t have the same size nor experienced work force they are use to when H2-B visa workers were more abundant.

“Finding help turned out to be a bit easier than I thought it was going to be,” said one restaurant owner in Provincetown. “But I spend so much time training a younger and new staff. I’m going to have to start all over again this fall when my new employees come in to replace the kids going home to go back to school. Normally I’d start to relax at this time of year.”

This particular business owner wanted to stay anonymous so as not to let prospective customers think he wouldn’t be able to handle diners with the same level of customer service as usual. But he did add that while the face of the restaurant will be a good and relaxing dining experience, behind the scenes is a bit chaotic.

“My employees are good and hard working,” he added. “They are just inexperienced and make very normal rookie mistakes. It is just another new challenge facing me as a small business owner.”

Early last spring all signs pointed to gloom and doom. Congress failed to renew an amendment to immigration laws that would allow more than the 66,000 H2-B visa workers into the country. Cape Cod alone uses 15 percent of the workers that come in one the guest worker program. A new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center called the program “close to slavery.” Plus, it is an election year and immigration is a hot button issue, meaning many in Congress were shying away from the third rail topic, said Cape and Islands Congressman William Delahunt last spring. Add into that sky high gas prices, a lousy economy, a national housing crisis and credit crunch it was all too easy to predict the summer was going to be a brutal economic disappointment, perhaps a disaster.

But it wasn’t.

“People really did vacation closer to home,” said Wendy Northcross, executive director of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. “And it is pretty clear that we’ve had a record number of European visitors.”

Most Cape Cod businesses are saying that 2008 was a great season. European and Canadian travelers, with a stronger currency than the U.S. dollar, found Cape Cod vacations down right cheap and came in droves. But not only did Europeans save the day on the tourism front, but also with the workforce.

University students from Bulgaria, Russia, Moldova, Serbia, the Ukraine, Macedonia, Kosovo and Belarus have become a fixture on the Outer and Lower Cape, but this year they came in larger numbers replacing workers largely from Jamaica on the H2-B visa program. However, what proved problematic is not all of the students will either want to or be able to come back next year due to restrictions within the exchange program. That leaves local business owners scrambling again at the end of the summer like in the spring to find workers to help them through the still busy months of autumn.

“They are worried about September and October,” said Candice Collins Boden, executive director of the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce, about her members in a town that is the most reliant on outside workers than any other on Cape Cod.

Boden echoed that finding workers isn’t the biggest problem, but rather the loss of experience and the need to constantly train means business owners are working a lot more hours themselves. It appears that the fall, rather than summer may be the true test as to full effect of the nation’s immigration debate on Cape Cod.

The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce will be conducting a region-wide survey in October to gauge how the season went in regards to finding and training workers to better assist local businesses in finding staff next spring. But first they need to get through the fall.

“Believe me, it’s been a good summer,” said Boden. “We held our own. International visitors were way up. But the test is the fall. That’s the gravy.”

The Cape Codder