Sydonnie Mitchell, a housekeeper at Waves Oceanfront Resort in Old Orchard Beach, puts on fresh pillowcases while turning over a room on June 3. A shortage of J1 visa workers has put a crunch on seasonal businesses. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Every year, thousands of foreign college students arrive in Maine to work at hotels, restaurants, stores and summer camps, practice English and get a taste of life in the states.

Not this summer.

Closed embassies, international travel restrictions and a backlogged visa process mean only a fraction of the usual number of students will make it to the U.S., leaving seasonal employers scrambling even more to hire workers in a tight labor market.

Funtown Splashtown USA, one of the state’s largest amusement parks, delayed its spring opening by three weeks entirely because the students from Jamaica and the Dominican Republic it relies on to paint, stain, move equipment and generally get the park ready in mid-May every year didn’t get visas in time.

“We are scrambling right now to catch up on a lot of that stuff because we are so far behind from not having any of those students,” said General Manager Cory Hutchinson.

Funtown is one of the biggest employers of foreign students in the U.S. on short-term “J1” visas that permit about four months of work and travel. Two years ago, it employed about 110 visa workers. This year, Hutchinson expects about 45 students to make it.

Unlike U.S. student workers, who work part time around other obligations, foreign students are ready to work as many hours as he can give them, Hutchinson said. “That really is what has a major impact on us, the amount of hours worked,” he said.

Until last week, the amusement park thought it would have to close two days a week because it didn’t have enough staff. Raising the starting wage to $14.15 an hour and offering a family pack of four season passes finally got them the people they need, but it meant raising ticket prices by $2 and closing two hours early.

The loss of student workers this year has ripple effects across the state, throwing a spotlight on employers’ heavy reliance on out-of-state labor to make summer work.

“It’s a disaster, plainly and simply a disaster,” said HospitalityMaine Government Affairs Director Greg Dugal.

In 2019, about 5,000 foreign visitors came to Maine on J-1 visas, either as summer camp counselors or for the summer work travel program. Combined, visa holders accounted for almost 10 percent of the state’s seasonal tourism workforce, Dugal estimates.

Last year, with the coronavirus pandemic raging, only a few hundred students made it to Maine. But even as the pandemic eases and restrictions lift in the U.S., foreign visitors still face barriers.

Citizens of Europe’s 26-nation Schengen Area – a barrier-free travel zone – and people from the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland, as well as Brazil, India and South Africa remain prohibited from traveling directly to the U.S.

Depending on coronavirus restrictions, some embassies are not open for required in-person visa interviews. Some of those that are have made processing J1 visas a low priority, Dugal said.

Meanwhile, Maine employers expecting that foreign students would fill a certain number of open positions are plunging into a competitive labor market as tourism season ramps up.

Sydonnie Mitchell, a housekeeper at Waves Ocean Resort in Old Orchard Beach, smooths out a comforter while turning over a room on Thursday. A shortage of J1 visa workers has put a crunch on seasonal businesses. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“We are in a labor shortage – people think it is unemployment compensation and visa workers, but it is more than that,” Dugal said. “If everything was working perfectly, we would still have a labor shortage.”

A TRIPLE BLOW

Camp Fernwood, an overnight girls’ summer camp in Poland, usually hires at least 30 foreign college students as counselors, maintenance and kitchen staff. Just five of those workers are expected this year, said Fritz Seving, one of the camp directors.

Instead of a sole staff member working on recruitment in a normal year, Fernwood has four. The camp delved through a decade of former counselors and alumni to find help, even offering fully employed people a chance to lend a hand for a couple of weeks and work remotely part of the time. At this point it is likely to cancel some activities because of understaffing.

“We are desperately trying to fill those positions,” Seving said. “It’s been a nightmare for us.”

Maine’s summer camps rely heavily on international staff. About one-third of camp workers come on visas, said Ron Hall, executive director of the trade group Maine Summer Camps.

“It is not because Maine camps aren’t looking for Maine workers – there just aren’t enough,” Hall said.

To work around embassy restrictions, some camps have even paid to fly students to Mexico to quarantine for two weeks in a hotel and get a visa at the U.S. consulate in that country before traveling to America, Hall added.

The loss of the program this year is a triple blow – to employers that rely on those students, students missing a valued experience, and to the U.S., by failing connect with up-and-coming citizens across the world, said Phil Simon, vice president of professional exchange programs at CIEE, a nonprofit international education company in Portland that administers J-1 visits.

“No other government in the world does this program at this scale – it has been hugely valuable for the U.S.,” Simon said. “You are reaching a group of university-educated people – they are going to be parents, teachers, architects, lawyers and politicians. You are building this network of friends in other countries at scale.”

It typically takes at least five months to arrange a J-1 visa, he said. The number of students making it to the U.S. this year will be at most 10 percent of those that came in 2019.

“The businesses in the U.S. and Maine that do such a good job at welcoming these visitors also rely on them for staffing,” he said. “This avenue is just not going to be open to them, which is going to create issues.”

HOTELS HIT HARD

Students coming on a J1 visa are paid a regulated prevailing wage, and many employers  provide their housing and offer cultural activities and outings. As a program of the U.S. Department of State, the overall intent is for intercultural exchange and diplomacy, not just summer labor, Hall said.

In Old Orchard Beach, typically the largest host community for foreign students, holdups in the J-1 program have left hotels with major staffing gaps in the face of a summer expected to jump-start a post-pandemic tourism recovery.

At Beach Villa Motel and Cottages, just two students from Jamaica on summer work-travel visas are coming this year. Normally, owner Cindy Gurry hosts at least four.

“What I’ve found is that the demand for jobs increases so greatly (in the summer) and not everyone wants to do service work, and people who live year year-round want full-time jobs with benefits,” Gurry said. “That’s why the seasonal hospitality industry relies on the J-1 program.”

Finding replacements for those workers is an uphill struggle. Gurry is offering competitive wages but competes against retail chain stores that pay the same or more for jobs easier than cleaning hotel rooms. Out-of-state workers are willing to come up for the summer but expect their own housing, and the dorm-style lodging she provides for J-1 students isn’t appropriate.

Working at half staff, Gurry got creative, hiring a cleaning company to take care of her bigger, long-term cottage units instead of assigning her own staff to the task for a lower cost.

Even if foreign students make it through with no problems next year, the same constraints on local hiring – competition, housing and transportation – will still be there, she added.

“I want people to be paid a good, livable wage,” she said. “But if it continues to inflate, we may have to consider raising prices if we have to pay wages that are easily $5 more an hour than we have paid.”

A “now hiring” sign hangs in the window at Waves Oceanfront Resort in Old Orchard Beach, where Josh Ouellette works as assistant general manager. A shortage of J1 visa workers has put a crunch on seasonal businesses. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A short way down the beach, Waves Oceanfront Resort is expecting half the 40 students that work there in a typical summer. One student from Bulgaria arrived in late May, and another from Romania was coming, but many Turkish students who planned to come were unable to get through at the U.S. Embassy in their country, said Assistant General Manager Josh Ouellette.

“The labor market has been tough. We are open, we are ready to go, we are expecting an incredibly busy summer,” Ouellette said.

Somehow, even if he’s short-staffed, the resort will make it through without closing rooms or restricting hours, Ouellette added.

“A lot of people have not been able to take a vacation in well over a year – we want to give them that,” he said. “We are not going to limit ourselves – it is all hands on deck and we will do what we need to do.”


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