Cape Businesses Look to J-1 Visa Students to Fill a Labor Need

Aug 29, 2018

A J-1 student stocking fruits at Stop and Shop in Orleans.
Credit Sarah Tan / WCAI

Perhaps you've seen them on the side of the highway, their bike lights flashing as you pass them in the night, or maybe they've rung you up at the grocery store and you've noticed an accent. They’re students from abroad, and they’re called J-1’s, after the type of visa they hold.  It's a cultural exchange visa, but it allows them to work while they’re here for three to four months. Every year, Massachusetts brings in the highest number of these kinds of J-1 students in the United States, and the majority are on the Cape and Islands for the summer.

This is part one of a three-part series called Cape Cod's Hidden Student Workforce. All of the pieces can be heard here.

During the busiest week of the year on Martha’s Vineyard, a sea of tourists in shorts and beach hats pass along Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs. It’s a quintessential portrait of an American summer. But this year in particular, this classic portrait of an American vacation is brought to you by foreign college students. Throughout the Cape and Islands, and up and down Circuit Avenue, these students bus tables, clean hotel rooms, and stock shelves at grocery stores. 

"As this is the main street of commerce, and includes hospitality and dining, J-1's have in some way this year saved the day," said Nancy Gardella of the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce. 

In the past two years, the Trump administration has cut back on the number of H-2B visas granted, the visas that  bring seasonal workers from overseas. These were workers that many local businesses relied on during the summer season to fill seasonal employment needs. And now, employers have turned to J-1 students as a way to fill gaps.

Alexandra Milkova, an eighteen year old from Bulgaria, is one of those students. She’s a store clerk at the Black Dog in Oak Bluffs and a housekeeper at the Vineyard Harbor Motel in Vineyard Haven. As she folded  clothes at the Black Dog, she said her experience has been a rewarding one, but that she would warn other students that it isn’t easy.

"You do kind of count the days like you’re in prison sometimes. Some days it’s very nice, and other days it’s like, 'I want to go, I want to leave.' I’m not going to lie, it is very hard," she said. 

But in one month, she’ll get to travel the country before returning to school in Bulgaria, and she can see a light at the end of the tunnel.

"When it’s at the end and you have all your money and you’re going home, you’re very happy.  So you know, make it count," she said. 

But Gardella cautioned that just making money isn’t the point of the J-1 program, though she recognizes that businesses on the island have a need. If stores can't fill worker vacancies, they keep shorter hours or are understaffed, which means less business, and a poor experience for tourists. 

"We’re out of balance. We don’t have the appropriate number of adult H-2B workers, so we supplement those positions with J-1 students," Gardella said. "So we’re compromised, neither is being able to be fully the experience it should be."

Further down Circuit Avenue, Erin Tiernan is the owner of Basics and Eastaway clothing stores. Her business hires about a dozen J-1s every year , and she said she tries to provide the cultural aspect of the program, too, because she sees how hard J-1s can work.

"In general, because my staff is younger, we try to do activities that help a milennial staff stay together and be enthusiastic about a job," Tiernan said. "So we do activities like a barbecue, staff hike, staff paddle nigh. We use those as our cultural activities." 

But she worries that a lot of other businesses don’t honor the cultural exchange part of the program, and there’s no formal oversight to check employers. Irene Scharf is a law professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth who focuses on immigration law. She said the temporary nature of the J-1 visa program can open it to abuse by employers, especially when businesses are strapped for workers.

"It’s not surprising that the students on this program have raised issues of overwork and underpay, because the employers need the workers, and they’re trying to pay the lowest wage they can pay," Scharf said. 

She thought that the program’s purpose had gotten away from being a cultural exchange. 

"To take this program and now say you have teenagers, youngsters, able to come for three, maximum four, months to work during an intense summer period does not comport with the original intent of the J-Visa program. It doesn’t at all," she said. 

Last year, about four thousand J-1 workers came to work on the Cape, and a thousand more on the Islands, making the program a significant contributor to the regional economy.

This is the first story in our series about Cape Cod's hidden student workforce, examining who J-1 students are and why so many end up working on the Cape and Islands over the summer. Tomorrow, we'll take a look at the process of how a J-1 gets to Cape Cod, and whether it's working at odds with the program's original purpose.