OCEAN CITY — Many resort business owners can breathe a collective sigh of relief this week as the unsettled foreign student labor situation has now stabilized.
Earlier this month, federal sanctions against the Council for Educational Travel USA (CETUSA), borne out of a controversy in Pennsylvania last summer, caused quite a stir in the resort business community reliant on the 1,000-plus foreign students the organization brings to Ocean City each summer.
CETUSA has maintained an office in Ocean City since 2005 and has been represented locally by regional manager Annemarie Conestabile, who has been scrambling for the last two weeks to find a replacement organization to sponsor the roughly 1,500 foreign student workers that come to the eastern U.S. each summer, of which about 1,100 live and work in Ocean City.
With CETUSA unable to work with foreign students indefinitely following federal sanctions against the agency, Conestabile has been seeking another partnership to fill the void. Last week, it appeared she had a solution with a new partnership with Cultural Homestay International (CHI), but the bottom fell out of that budding relationship late last week.
This week, however, Conestabile moved quickly to form another partnership with United Work and Travel, a relationship she believes will be a lasting and productive one. Conestabile said she forged a relationship with United Work and Travel after fielding several offers from similar agencies.
“This has turned out to be a real good thing,” she said this week. “We had several offers, but I was very careful to choose the one that best met all of our requirements and requests. A couple came very close, but United Work and Travel met 100 percent of my requirements.”
After a few weeks of uncertainty, the new relationship with United Work and Travel will provide some stability to the situation and should provide a seamless transition for resort businesses that rely on the seasonal foreign worker labor force.
“It doesn’t look like there will be any disruption in the process,” she said. “It was crazy there for a little while, but we worked around the clock to find a suitable partner and we’re confident we’ve found the right one in United Work and Travel. It should be a smooth transition. They’re already in Ocean City setting up equipment and telephones.”
Conestabile said United Work and Travel President Kasey Simon is aware of the employment needs of the resort and she expects him and his company to hit the ground running.
“He has courted Ocean City for many years, but there was never any commitment,” she said. “For some reason, we just never connected, but this now seems like the perfect fit and a good match. It should be a win-win for everybody.”
For her part, Conestabile said the process to interview and screen applicants for the foreign student worker program is well underway.
“I’ve already processed a lot of the paperwork and screened the students,” she said. “A lot of that was done with Skype interviews, but in March, I will travel to numerous foreign countries to begin finalizing the application and screening process.”
In the meantime, CETUSA’s future is uncertain after the State Department’s five-month probe found the organization had failed about 400 foreign students last summer working in a Hershey’s Chocolate packing plant in Palmyra, Pa.
In August of 2011, hundreds of those students staged a much-publicized walkout from the plant protesting low wages, long night shifts and unsafe working conditions. The action got the attention of the State Department, which will release new regulations soon on what sort of occupations foreign summer workers are allowed to be offered.