Foreign students find getting visas tougher

(June 7, 2019) The increasing number of rejections of J-1 student visa applications by federal immigration authorities is having an impact on the resort tourist industry, which is having difficulty filling many seasonal jobs.

While thousands of J-1 students are still anticipated to work in the resort and will arrive within the end of the month and the beginning of July, their overall presence seems to be diminishing. American students, meanwhile, apparently aren’t as eager as they used to be to work in Ocean City.

“We have restaurants who historically have been the go-to restaurants who still could use a few hands,” Susan Jones, executive director for the Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association said. “It’s definitely a problem for all of our members and it’s not just a local problem … it’s statewide, it’s nationwide. It was one of the hot topics at the national restaurant show.”

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Susan Jones

“It’s not just in restaurants, it’s also in the hotel industry,” she added. “Unemployment is at an all-time low. So that’s part of the problem. I think we also have the problem of a different work mentality in the up and coming generations … it’s not quite like our grandparents, where you had to work really, really hard for every last dime.”

Anne Marie Conestabile, the program director for United Work and Travel, one of the sponsors who brings J-1 students into the country, said the denial of student visas has reached an unprecedented level.

“May is when students start arriving and we saw a process take place in the last year,” Conestabile said. “We used to be able to get spring students. We used to be able to tap into universities in the Asian countries and bring a lot of young people in Ocean City to work and kick off the season like in March, April and May. Those students got deleted from the program … they no longer exist.

“Then we saw the visa denials,” she continued. “In the month of May, we hire about 800 students for Ocean City from this office from the Dominican Republic. This year we had lots of visa denials in the Dominican Republic, which is not a country that abuses [visas] usually. We saw students from Thailand get visas denied, which we never see. We saw people from the Philippines’ visas denied … a huge number of Eastern Europeans ‘visas were denied.”

Why the applications were rejected she was unable to say.

“We never know the reasons why the students get visas denied,” Conestabile said. “We know that we have visa denials but never are we given an explanation as to why.”

Typically, Conestabile’s office brings in around 1,200-1,300 J-1 students this time a year. So far, United has brought in 1,000.

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Anne Marie Conestabile displays a stack of unfilled jobs throughout the resort as a result of an employee shortage.

“I work with probably 200-plus employers in Ocean City, maybe 240,” she said. “All of them have had less numbers from other sponsors and I’m getting calls from employers that I never heard of before in Ocean City. I have 900 jobs right here that are available for students who didn’t fill them and they’re begging us for help.”

A lack of interest in entry-level jobs has been cited as one of the reasons for the absence of younger American students, many of whom don’t want basic jobs like dish washing and housekeeping, and favor better-paying jobs and tip-based employment. Those “unwanted and leftover” jobs end up going to foreign workers.

Moreover, college students are no longer traveling to Ocean City to work and are finding jobs closer to home, Jones said.

“That’s primarily because either they are getting graduate degrees or they’re finding decent jobs in their own hometown, or they don’t have to come down and wait tables to make a lot of money … they can do that in their backyard,” Jones said.

The problem is nowhere near a crisis, and some 4,200 J-1 students will be working in the resort this year. What is causing concern, however, is how the declining number of viable J-1 students will affect the future.

“[Employers] are really analyzing their labor costs because [they] have gotten so high,” Jones said. “The top line of expense of any business is labor. So, they’re really looking at all of the hours … they have to analyze every single hour so people may not be given a lot of shifts that they would have been given five years ago.

“In the past, employers would keep people on the payroll just to keep people,” she continued. “That’s not happening now.”

Not every business is hurting, but they do acknowledge that hiring has become more challenging recently.

“My colleagues in the business are all complaining about the same thing: ‘There’s not enough people to go around,’” Shawn Harman, owner of Fish Tales on 21st Street, said. “We’re doing all that we can do, but everybody else is fighting the same fight.”

Harman, who usually has more than 200 employees during the summer, says right now he has around 150. One of the solutions he has come up with to counter this problem is raising his wages to entice more people to work at his restaurant.

“There’s other higher paying jobs, so what we’ve had to do is increase what we pay,” Harman said. “The result is we’re going to surpass the minimum wage anyway just to get an employee to fill these positions … you don’t want to be the one with the empty spots.”

On the hotel front, “It seems we’re getting a lighter start, so some of the students that we would hire from Eastern Europe who would come in the last week of May or first week of June are getting here in the middle of June or third week of June,” said Michael James, whose group operates the Carousel on 118th Street and other properties.

“[Plus] with the addition of more hotels and more restaurants, we’re not getting any larger influx of American students ... but there are more jobs.”

The Carousel generally has 250 workers during the summer season. Currently, it has around 200.

“What we’re going to need to do in the future is obviously find more ways to be productive,” James said. “Once we get to July, we should be fully staffed, but [the trouble] is the early part of the summer where we’re still getting busy, especially on the weekends but we’re not staffed up yet.”

Both Jones and Conestabile suggest that employers who already have J-1 and American employees should provide some additional encouragement to ensure they will return in the following years.

“I think one of the few things that the employers have to do is they have to make their workplace very positive,” Jones said. “They have to pick people up when they fail, give them positive encouragement or team meetings. Give feedback on what they can do to make things better.”

Jones also suggested that businesses consider pursuing and hiring students directly out of high school.

“Not every kid is meant to go to college,” Jones said. “There are plenty of kids who don’t want to go to college or they don’t need to. What we can do at the high school level is make them understand that it’s okay to enter the workforce right after high school.”

Conestabile emphasized treating J-1s with the respect, since many travel halfway across the world for these jobs.

“Keep them happy at your jobs, Conestabile said. “We’re hopeful that everybody supports the J-1 program, because without it, Ocean City starts to see a little bit of a painful outlook toward summer, so everyone who has a stake in it, please support it.”

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