Summer Visa Changes To Have Major Impact

OCEAN CITY – Significant changes to the summer work and travel program, including a provision requiring in most cases a confirmed job offer before a J-1 visa is offered, could put a serious dent in the foreign student workforce in the resort this summer.

Ocean City, like many other seasonal resorts, relies heavily on a transient summer workforce made up largely of foreign students working and traveling on a J-1 visa issued by the U.S. Department of State through its embassies and consulates around the globe. For example, nearly 3,800 foreign students traveled to Ocean City last season to live and work in the resort, about half of which came from Russia and other Eastern Bloc countries such as the Ukraine, Romania and Belarus.

In recent years, many of the foreign students arrive in the resort without confirmed job offers in hand and hundreds often pound the pavement in Ocean City looking for work. That will likely change this summer after the State Department announced in October changes to the Summer Work/Travel program for most foreign students. The new changes will require foreign students to have a confirmed job offer in hand before being issued a J-1 summer work and travel visa.

Current State Department regulations allow 50 percent of the students participating in the summer work/travel program to enter the U.S. without a job placement. However, in response to increased allegations of fraudulent activity surrounding the program, including employers offering jobs that aren’t available or not honoring their job contracts, the State Department is initiating the changes that will require a job offer confirmed by a J-1 sponsor before visa interviews abroad.

As a result, there will likely be a significantly lower number of foreign workers flooding Ocean City this summer to fill out the summer workforce in the resort.

“Basically, all of the foreign students that come here on that visa to work and travel will have to have a confirmed job before they get here,” said Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association Executive Director Susan Jones. “What we anticipate happening is that there will be far fewer foreign students milling around town looking for jobs.”

The intent of the changes is to provide a safety net of sorts for the throngs of foreign student workers who arrive in the U.S. in areas like Ocean City on the promise of jobs that aren’t available or don’t exist.

“It’s going to be harder for the businesses,” said Jones. “They’re really going to have to pin down their needs and make commitments if they want to round out their staffs with these foreign student workers.”

Carrie Linch, chair of Ocean City’s Seasonal Workforce Committee and Eastern Director of one of the larger sponsor organizations, ASSE International, said this week the changes could result in hundreds fewer foreign student workers in the resort this summer.

“It’s going to have a big impact on Ocean City,” she said. “Roughly 3,700 to 4,000 come here each year and last year an estimated 900 of them, or about a quarter, had no job placements when they got here. They walk up and down the Boardwalk and Coastal Highway looking for work, but I’m guessing we won’t see as many this year because of this. We’ll probably see hundreds less.”

The sponsor organizations will have their work cut out for them as they attempt to confirm real job offers for thousands of foreign students seeking employment in Ocean City this summer.

“Our job as sponsors is to call and make sure all of the job offers are legitimate,” said Linch. “My company is one of the smaller ones, and some of the bigger ones have thousands of foreign students. We’re going to have to verify and confirm every single job offer.”

According to Linch, there could be repercussions for all parties involved if the new changes are not adhered to. For example, the new regulations will impose severe sanctions on the overseas agencies and sponsor organizations associated with fraudulent job offers. In addition, employers who do not honor their job agreements with students could also be affected. Linch said the new regulations have not been finalized, but the changes have already been mandated in many of the countries.

“The new regulations have been discussed, but have not been written into law,” she said. “That process could take a while. In the meantime, the State Department is trying to make sure they come over here with real jobs. For example, the U.S. Embassy in Russia has already mandated the changes.”

Another sponsor organization that handles job placements for hundreds of foreign student workers in Ocean City each summer is the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE). CIEE Vice President of Employer Relations Phil Simon said this week the changes will greatly affect the number of foreign students coming from Russia and other eastern European nations this summer.

“In the past, a lot of the students went through the visa interview process without a job placement,” he said. “That is all going to change, especially in Russia and those Eastern Bloc countries where so many of the work and travel students come from.”

Simon said resort businesses will likely have to expedite their hiring process in order to ensure their foreign worker needs are met.

“Ocean City has a lot in common with other resort areas that depend on a seasonal workforce,” he said. “Many of the employers are used to hiring foreign students at the last minute to round out their staffs. Some of them are going to have to change the way they do things somewhat.”

Those employers accustomed to filling out their needs at the last minute with foreign students could be caught unaware by the changes this summer, according to Simon.

“Our big concern for this year is if the employers don’t know this is going to happen, they are likely going to be faced with some staffing shortages,” he said. “They’re not going to see these waves and waves of potential employees flowing through the door.”

Simon said resort employers should contact the many sponsorship organizations to ensure they are up to speed on the policy changes.

“Our best advice is to work directly with the sponsor organizations,” he said. “We know what the changes are and how they are going to be implemented. … We always wanted a better planned program. The student workers will have a better experience and the employers prefer to know who is coming and how many are coming. We think this will prevent a glut of foreign student workers flooding areas where there aren’t enough jobs. We think this will make the whole program more organized.”