MENLO — Carnivals across the United States have been closing down over the past couple of years, with the most recent being Davis Amusement Cascadia of Portland, Oregon. The closures have rattled fairs and other venues across the United States.
For now at least, there still will be rides at the Pacific County Fair in late August. But chances appear slim of attracting a provider with bigger and better rides.
Pacific County Fair Manager Bill Monohon watched the ongoing closures “like a hawk,” he said, because it’s only a matter of time before the problem trickles to Washington State. Monohon, who is also a member of the International Association of Fairs and Expos, has been speaking with fellow members about the issue.
“The main problem has been non-citizens getting H2B work visas,” Monohon said. “The process to get those has slowed down immensely, and by the time carnivals begin booking out their schedules, they aren’t finding enough labor to perform the work. So what it comes down to is they don’t have the workforce to do the jobs.”
He continued, “it’s not like there are a lot of new workers, because a lot of them have been doing this for a very long time because we can’t get Americans who want to do the work. That is the main problem that has been going on.”
In the case of Davis Amusement Cascadia, the issue was not labor, but the increasing costs associated with wages. The higher costs quickly pushed prices up to a point; it became illogical and absurd, so the company shut down after 80 years and five generations of family ownership.
It’s unclear how the new minimum wage of $13.50 will affect fairs and carnivals in Washington State.
Associations challenging Congress to help
International Association of Fairs and Expos President and CEO Marla Calico also commented on the ongoing issue. She, along with Outdoor Amusement Business Association President and CEO Greg Chiecko have been working to combat the problem.
“Most carnivals and some food vendors use [H2B] labor,” she stated in an email. “The current issue is that there is far greater demand for workers than the number of visas that are being allocated by the federal government.”
She continued, “there have been ‘caps’ put in place, and getting it changed is a slog in these challenging political times.”
According to Chiecko, since Jan. 2, roughly 99,300 H2B work visas were filed, and this year employers have been assigned a priority grouping that will likely not satisfy the needs for labor in 2020.
“We are working with congressional allies to pressure the Department of Homeland Security to immediately release the additional visas authorized under the appropriate law,” Chiecko said.
Troubles of a small fair
The Pacific County Fair is one of the smallest fairs in Washington State, and according to Mohonon, it’s already hard enough to book entertainment and amusement. The closing carnivals are making it harder.
“I am working hard on trying to find a new carnival for our fair, but we are right in that time element where everyone else is focused on the big ones,” Mohonon said. “You have the Puyallup Fair, the Oregon State Fair, and a Monroe fair, which is huge. They take all your big carnival entertainment folks.”
Monohon has been trying since being hired in 2018 to replace the current carnival provider, Paradise Amusement, for a bigger and better experience for fairgoers.
“I have called the big ones up and pleaded with them that I just need six or seven rides,” Monohon said. “I tell them I just need a couple of kiddy things, three or four middles and some big rides that blow the teenagers off the charts. So that makes it all really tough, and I’ve called everything from Southern California up into British Columbia and so far have not been able to find anything.”
“It’s hard but what do you do,” Monohon added. “It’s the feds, in my opinion, who have turned the screws more on this problem because they aren’t issuing work visas to help these companies out.”
Monohon also mentioned he is unsure how the H2B visa issues will affect this year’s fair as the Paradise Amusements also relies heavily on non-citizen workers.
“When they don’t have the workers, what can they do?” Monohon said.
“They don’t make the money the next thing you know they’re out of business.”