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Too Big for Comfort

Fri, 04/05/2019 - 12:26

It is generally said the reason for a perennial labor shortage on the South Fork is that housing is too expensive for people who want to work here. But it is also possible that another important, if overlooked, factor is that business as a whole has grown too big for a homegrown work force.

Consider just one data point: There will never be room enough in East Hampton for all the tradespeople who stream in every morning from the west.

Drinking water, roads, waste systems, emergency services, schools: There is a limit here to the infrastructure necessary for an increased resident population. If there is one common thread, it is that businesses here, particularly in services, hospitality, and construction, have grown too large.

It is clear from the panic among resort operators that the supply of low-wage laborers from other countries is threatened by a federal visa pullback and that demand far outpaces supply. Representative Lee Zeldin dived right in last month, asking the Department of Homeland Security to expand the H-2B visa cap, which allows foreign citizens to work legally in the United States. By the end of March, the limit was raised by 30,000, as some workers ended up waiting tables or cleaning motel rooms in Montauk by Memorial Day while living in substandard, sometimes unhealthy conditions.

As Paul Monte, the president of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce, put it, “It has become increasingly difficult to find homegrown labor to fill our seasonal positions; and now with our booming economy and record low unemployment it is almost impossible.”

He has that right, of course, but he cannot speak for all Montauk or, for that matter, all East Hampton Town residents, who bear the costs in terms of tax dollars for services, and noise and crowds as well. As for the millions of dollars in tourist money, a fair proportion flows out of town, either to now-corporate ownership groups or with H-2B visa workers as they leave at the end of the season.

A problem of this scale makes it crucial to gain a clear-eyed understanding of what caused it. Growth out of scale with the community and nature plays a far greater role than industry boosters like Mr. Monte and Mr. Zeldin would have us believe. Of that, the H2-B visa crisis is ample proof.

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