(Jan. 18, 2012) Despite resort employers still being on edge after last year’s sudden change, it appears unlikely that the U.S. State Department will make any further modifications to the J-1 student visa program before the 2013 summer season. Still, the national demographic shift that the resort has seen since 2011 will likely continue.
“We don’t really anticipate any new regulations prior to the season,” said Carrie Linch, head of Ocean City’s Seasonal Workforce Committee. “Last year was a new year for regulations, and it took some time for people to get used to.”
In May of 2012, the State Department issued an Interim Final Ruling (IFR) that codified a crackdown on visa programs for summer work-travel students, of whom nearly 4,000 come to Ocean City each season to work in resort businesses and sightsee around the U.S.
The intent of the programs — classified under the “J-1” visa type — is to offer foreign students a financially neutral way to experience American culture by working in the states to pay off their travel expenses. But it had long been common knowledge that many foreign students were being relied upon heavily as a labor force, at the expense of the cultural exchange condition of their visa.
Beginning in 2011, the State Department had placed six Eastern European countries in a pilot program with a much more in-depth visa process, in response to concerns over the welfare of participants from countries where the visa program was popular and used en-masse, often with limited oversight. The department also began much more comprehensive monitoring of travel sponsor agencies to make sure they were offering adequate cultural exposure and travel opportunities for students.
In August of 2011, however, an incident occurred in which Eastern European students rallied outside a Hershey’s chocolate factory in Palmyra, Pa., to protest unfair living and working conditions, which they were said to have been subjected to at the isolated plant.
The interim ruling issued the following May, which codified the increased level of oversight into official policy, caught many travel sponsors and stateside employers unprepared.
“The IFR came out in the middle of May last year, which totally caught everyone off-guard,” Linch said. “[Resort businesses] didn’t want to hear it. They were already in their season, and once it gets going, it’s often difficult to communicate with busy employers.”
Regardless, the State Department was serious about requiring more active participation from sponsors once students arrived in the U.S. If students change or add jobs other than the one they were placed in by their sponsor, it has to be reported.
“Students can be terminated if they don’t have a second job approved by their sponsor,” Linch said. “Employers, in the past, are so used to hiring students who just walk through the door. But I think most of the employers in town adapted well. They had to.”
Even still, Linch said she knew of several students in the 2012 summer season who were dropped from their programs for non-compliance.
“Word has probably gotten around amongst the students that you can’t mess around,” Linch said.
The department is also requiring sponsors to monitor students’ living and travel arrangements, in order to make sure that they’re experiencing America and not just providing labor.
“That cultural activities component will definitely be highlighted this summer even more,” Linch said.
Fortunately, Ocean City provides “so many opportunities for students to complete those cultural obligations,” Linch said.
“Ocean City, as a community, is often quoted to the rest of the country by the State Department as a model,” she said. “The community itself does so much for participants.”
Some major concerns remain, however, namely in the often cramped housing conditions to which visiting students are sometimes subjected
“It is a challenge every summer for every-one to be in safe, comfortable housing,” Linch said. “A lot of that now is going to be a part of the sponsors’ responsibility.”
Living conditions were a particular concern last year amongst Irish students. Ireland, under a bilateral agreement, is a visa waiver country, which means Irish students can come to the US without a job pre-arranged. That makes it much easier for them to arrive with less lead-time and end up with unsecured or otherwise questionable housing.
Last year, Irish consular officials even visited the resort to discuss ways to further ensure the comfort and safety of their nationals.
“The dialogue that we had with them, and with the Ocean City Police Department and the community, was very productive,” Linch said. “Everyone in town is invested in this, and we are hoping that the situation will improve this coming summer.”
Because of the crackdown on Eastern European sponsors, and the relative ease of travel for Irish students, the national balance of the city’s seasonal workforce began to shift in 2011 and has, by all accounts, continued to do so.
While Slavic-speaking students dominated the city’s seasonal workforce through 2010, student demographics for 2011 featured 603 Irish, 481 Romanians, 452 Ukrainians, and 445 Russians.
Linch said the State Department preferred that she not disseminate 2012’s exact numbers, but that they were similar to 2011.
“We had a fraction of Russians compared to Ireland and Romania,” Linch said. “In years past, those numbers were the complete opposite.”
Romania and Moldova, in particular, have continued to contribute more and more students to Ocean City’s economy. Despite their smaller populations compared to surrounding Eastern European states, they are the only ones that speak a Romance language.
But overall numbers, Linch said, have declined slightly. Further, the State Department is making a push to wean resort employers off their dependency on a J-1 student workforce.
“The cultural aspect of this program has taken precedence over the work,” Linch said. “[The State Department] doesn’t want to see employers rely so heavily on the program.”
Whereas hours clocked by foreign student workers has ballooned over the past two decades or so, “it’s now going in the opposite direction,” Linch said, “and employers need to get used to that.”