The annual fall festivals at St. Raphael’s and St. Paul’s Catholic churches in St. Petersburg and Blessed Sacrament in Seminole have been canceled — though they hope for a spring rescheduling — mostly because their amusement vendors are not able to get enough labor for what is their biggest fundraiser.
It echoes a problem nationally, where many companies in the carnival industry that rely on hiring seasonal workers from outside the United States are facing a shortage of workers. The industry leans heavily on the government’s temporary work visa program (called H-2B and J-1 visas) to meet staffing needs. But the government has been slow to grant the visas, especially for the family-owned vendors who work at these smaller festivals.
Amusement and recreation jobs are the second-most common occupation granted nonagricultural temporary work permits.
“It seems to be a general trend, and across Florida it seems to be an issue,” said David Wright, parish manager of St. Raphael’s, which has been holding its fall festival with food and carnival rides for two decades. “If you are a smaller carnival like we are it’s hard to get the vendors to come down to Florida.”
Its festival has been a tradition for almost 50 years, and St. Paul’s pastor Monsignor Robert Gibbons said he was very sad that a “confluence of conditions” made the fall festival impossible to put on this year. But he is hopeful they will have a vendor lined up for an April festival, since it has raised close to $80,000 in past years.
“The only other time we’ve had to cancel since 1975 was COVID,” Gibbons said. “I’m sad because people love this event. Many treat it as a big homecoming, they take time out of their vacations for it, the little children love it. And of course it means a lot for the budget of the school.”
Putting together an amusement park ride takes a lot of time and a lot of manual labor.
The pandemic caused a sharp decline in the number of applications to the temporary work visa programs that often staff these festivals, leading the Department of Homeland Security to slash the number of visas issued, according to a January report from McGowan Allied Specialty Insurance, an industry staple.
Some estimates say the industry needs about 100,000 visas issued for workers at fairs and carnivals across the country, according to a July report by Carnival Warehouse, which monitors the carnival and amusement industry. They have gotten a little over half that.
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“There’s no path forward for our industry without H-2B workers,” Frank Zaitshik of Wade Shows, one of the largest carnival companies in North America, told Carnival Warehouse in July. Wade Shows, which manages carnival rides for the Florida State Fair in Tampa, was one of the first midway providers to hire foreign workers after the pandemic and reported a sluggish process and delayed workers.
But it’s not all bad news. There are some fall festivals that are still on. Our Lady Queen of Peace Fall Festival in New Port Richey is coming Oct. 12-15, as is the Sacred Heart Festival in Pinellas Park on Oct. 11-15. And the Our Lady of Lourdes Fall Festival will celebrate its 51st year in Dunedin with a carnival Oct. 19-22.
Arnold Amusements out of Michigan has been operating their Dunedin carnival rides for years and is on track for this year’s festival, said Lisa Suarez, the school’s music teacher and chairperson of the festival.
“It’s part of our culture and it is a big deal to Dunedin,” Suarez said. Security has estimated that the festival draws 15,000-25,000 people over the course of a weekend, making it the school’s biggest fundraiser, she said.
“It helps keep our tuition costs down and we have used it to pay for playground equipment, technology and a lot of school needs,” Suarez said.
There seems to be progress lately with visas.
The H-2B guest worker visa program supplemented its workforce with about 66,000 additional visas earlier this year, which included approximately 20,000 workers from the Northern Triangle Countries (NTC) of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
“NTC has proven to be not just an effective stopgap measure, but one with rare bipartisan support, boding well for the future legislative progress,” Carnival Warehouse reported in August.