J-1 visa program cuts could devastate Island businesses

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Angela Jankovska rings up a customer at the Net Result. She is on a J-1 worker visa from Macedonia. — Stacey Rupolo

The Trump administration is considering making severe reductions to the J-1 workers program — a program that allows young people from foreign countries to work in the U.S., and which supplies the Island with a considerable summer workforce. “We are disproportionately affected by this,” Representative Bill Keating said in a phone conversation with the Times on Tuesday.

This is not the first time this summer that the Trump administration has modified foreign worker policies — changes which have already created serious repercussions on Martha’s Vineyard. Earlier this year, the president slashed the number of eligible returning H-2B work visas. Though the Department of Homeland Security raised the cap on H-2B visas in July, which allowed some Island businesses to add employees, the prospect of future restrictions via the J-1 program could severely impact Island businesses in the future.

“President Trump’s shortsighted intention to eliminate the J-1 visa program will harm small businesses and tourism on the Cape & Islands,” State Senator Julian Cyr said in a press release on Tuesday. According to Rep. Cyr’s office, there are close to 6,000 J-1 students working on the Cape and Islands this summer — many of them filling the gap created by the restricted H-2B visas. About 1,000 of those workers are on Martha’s Vineyard alone.

Island business owners have agreed that cutting the J-1 program worsens the already existing struggle on the Island to fill seasonal jobs.

John Tiernan, owner of the Dockside Inn in Oak Bluffs, agrees the cut would have a crippling effect on the Island, and on his business.

“It’s 100 percent of my housekeeping staff,” he told The Times in an interview. “I don’t have one single American working in housekeeping, and not because I don’t hire Americans, but because Americans think cleaning rooms is beneath them. I’ve never had an application from an American for a housekeeper. Not one.”

Several businesses on-Island agreed about the lack of available American seasonal employees. Minimal applications come from high school students on the Island or college kids here for the summer. And many of the employed American students leave before the seasonal bustle ends.

“Like right now, it’s the week before Labor Day weekend, and all of my American college kids are gone,” Black Dog Tavern general manager Jill Gillick told The Times.

“I’ve got two American high school kids, and today is their last day. I have three J-1s cooking, three prepping, and two in the dishroom. They’re leaving next month, but they help us get through that next month.”

Some business owners and managers attribute the weak interest from young Americans to their attitude toward the types of jobs available.

“American kids don’t want to be dishwashers. We’ve got some J-1 students going to school for astrophysics, they’re going to school for these really unbelievable things, and they’re washing dishes because they want to be here,” said Ms. Gillick, who added that the Black Dog Tavern felt the impact of the H-2B cuts. And the administration’s decision to reraise the cap isn’t enough for businesses to keep up with demand.

“It scares me — I realize he [President Trump] wants to put America back to work, but you have to make America want to work,” Louis Larsen, owner of the Net Result, said this week. “I’m worried we aren’t going to be able to service the people the way they want to be serviced.”

The Net Result relies almost entirely on J-1 students to get through the summer season. The student schedules fall in line with the months Mr. Larsen needs filled.

Nancy Gardella, director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, added some insight into the problem of finding appropriate American workers: “Our high school students that are available are so restricted in terms of the kinds of work they can do, and that’s by law.”

Typically, she said, J-1 students are in their early 20s. They are able to work until 2 am at restaurants. They can start earlier and work later. They can use heavy machinery or equipment restricted to workers 18 years or older. They can fill the jobs retirees would not take, such as landscaping, or other jobs requiring physical labor.

Ms. Gardella is trying to rally businesses along the Cape and Islands, encouraging them to contact their state representatives requesting they fight against these cuts.

“When I say this would be devastating, I mean seriously devastating. Whoever is making these decisions clearly has absolutely no understanding of our area and the workforce in our area. No notice came out of the administration, and that is very disturbing,” Ms. Gardella said.

Ms. Gardella says the businesses she’s already spoken with are panicked. Business owners, management, and general staffers have barely had the opportunity to catch their breath this summer dealing with their dwindling workforce.

Some have found creative ways to try and work around the hurdles. Summercamp Hotel lost staffers, so management created a group of workers to bounce between different kinds of work, filling in the blanks as needed.

Many staffers at Nancy’s in Oak Bluffs worked back-to-back shifts this summer. General manager of ABC Disposal Jack Law bridged the gap at his company by driving more often than usual to keep up with demand.

Employees stepping up and working extra shifts managed to get the Island through this summer season, but with the shortage of H-2B workers, and now threats of losing the J-1 student workforce, businesses are unsure how to prepare for next year.

Rep. Keating said he is taking a proactive approach and trying to prevent any damage before final decisions are made in Congress: “We’re not going to wait and be reactive to this — it’s a lot easier to deal with issues of this nature by moving ahead of time and put off any finalized decision. And that’s what we are trying to do in this situation.”

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29 COMMENTS

  1. If the business sector of Martha’s Vineyard can not survive without the importation of cheap foreign labor maybe it’s time to rethink the entire Island model. The problems of labor and housing here are inextricably entwined after decades of snob zoning (coupled with lax and selective enforcement thereof), and anti business hysteria. Interesting how the rich liberals of Martha’s Vineyard decry the exploitation of those of lesser means elsewhere but are content to drive them off this island while demanding the importation of temporary foreign workers who can be sent away once their usefulness expires. If you want to see how it ends, visit Fisher’s Island, NY.

    • The business model of summer help for the tourist season has been around for over a century. Our parents and grandparents may have worked at resorts in the Adirondacks. So how do you see the Island model changing?

      • I am pretty sure here were no temporary job visas for Eastern Europeans when your parents and grandparents were working in the Adirondacks. A business strategy predicated on the capricious nature of government on immigration is not sustainable and unwise. If business can’t get workers they will raise their salaries until they do, and when prices go up the vacationers will decide if they want to pay them or not. Subsidized food prices with lower cost labor is asking for problems because the status quo never remains quo. Same with housing. You subsidize it and it becomes a magnet for more poor and indigent who cannot afford to live here.

        • Subsidized housing is a response to “unaffordability”, not it’s cause. It is snob zoning coupled with systematic destruction of local economy, save only hospitality, that makes the island unaffordable.

          • Yes unaffordability came before subsidy but when you make something cheaper you get more of it and in this case you will get more homeless not less. The more handouts one gives, the more indigent step up to the plate. Helping the intractably poor is a good thing but unfortunately we now have an embedded welfare state that doesnt distinguish categories. Your posts are thoughtful but I warn you that once you include biblical scripture you will be targeted . The island has more than enough land to build affordable housing but snobbery and zoning and worship of the creation rather than the creator makes extreme environmentalism reign supreme.

        • 1) You have no idea when minimum wage was enacted.
          2) Subsidized housing and cost of food were not mentioned by the author.
          3) You grounding in economics, to be nice about it, is fractured.

        • If MV had a sound, diversified economy coupled with fair zoning codes there would be no need for “subsidized” housing, which is really a band aid attempt to rectify other problems created by government. And I am not concerned about “targeting” for the use of “biblical scripture” to illustrate a point. (Acts 5:41)

          • It’s been a tourist, seasonally-based econonomy for longer than I’ve been alive, with all the problems that go with such a dependency– housing, medical care, mental illness, etc. Look at addiction rates among locals within communities that cater to seasonal residents, for example.

    • After a quick Wikipedia read, thinking I should visit Fishers Island.

      Raising the cost of luxury spending might reverse the increase of seasonal residents. And I thought there were too many people 20 years ago.

  2. I bet the liberals of MV rejoiced orgasmically at the $15/hr minimum wage law in Seattle. That would translate to around $25/hr here. How about it folks? Maybe we can get those disdainful Americans back into the scullery after all.

  3. Because of the labor intensive and exploitative nature of the hotel and restaurant industry, allowing the economy of an island like Martha’s Vineyard to be dominated by the hospitality industry is a formula for servitude and economic apartheid. This is exactly what has happened to MV. Only the few benefit while the many toil for wages that cannot support a livelihood. When they (the many) rebel and reject such employment preferring free stuff and minimal living, they are replaced by cheap foreign labor. Concurrently, the leftist elite institute snob zoning which drives working people off the island because they must live year round, not just seasonally. The morning influx of workers pouring off the boat to work here by day, only to return to the mainland by evening is reminiscent of the trains arriving from Soweto to service the city of Johannesburg – an ugly outgrowth of the apartheid system that the liberals here would (ostensibly) decry – from their comfortable up island estates. Yes, the economic model of this island needs to be completely redirected if ever there is to be a stable environment for the ones we would call our own.

    • At the level up the economic food chain you refer to, it’s no longer political parties but which belief structure gets them what they want, be it material wealth, market control, or our suffering and servitude. Presuming the average voter never figures this out, which direction do we push? The feudal society of the Right? Kick the can down the road of the Left?

      • Ecclesiastes 8:9 informs us that …”man has dominated man to his injury”. If government has any useful function, it is to minimize that injury to the extent possible in the system of things. As a species we are not doing a very good job at that in any level of government. In ancient Rome the locals were bought off with bread and entertainment in the coliseum while the soldiering was done by foreigners. Every island finds a way to deal with disdainful locals.

    • Or it could be like the hundreds of thousands of people that commute into their place of work every day. What’s the difference between living in New Jersey and taking an hour commute into NYC every day for work vs. living in Sandwich and doing the same to MV?
      There is no birthright to living on Martha’s Vineyard…and many might find a better life living off the Island.

  4. First of all, did anyone else notice that it went from ” severe reductions” to “elimination” in one paragraph? Second, if the Island is that dependent on cheap labor, maybe it’s time to restructure and evolve. This article is misleading, but then again, with the Island being a hotbed for radicalized liberals, it’s not surprising.

      • As always, the devil will be in the details. The question will become: did the establishment fulfill the requirement to attempt to hire American workers before bringing in foreigners? In this case we are not told. I hope Mr. Trump’s facility did indeed follow the letter of the law. That remains to be seen. That said, in view of his strong views and stance on the subject it would be refreshing to hear him raise the offered wages high enough to overcome the tendency for local available people to remain on the “free stuff” train. The President does indeed need to “walk the walk” on this issue. Let’s wait and see how this matter plays out.

        • Trump doesnt have to do anything on this issue nor ”walk the walk”. All of this is optics to appeal to his base since both parties have done nothing on immigration. Trump cares about stemming terror and in so doing some innocents get hurt like legitimate visa seekers. He is not concerned nor should he be, about restaurant prices or profits on MV. The invisible hand of economics will take care of that in time.

          • He (Trump) had better “walk the walk” on this issue – especially in his own hotels – it’s the law. As for prices and profits on MV, you are right – it’s not his business. BTW, the “invisible hand” (of Adam Smith, suppose) has already been chopped off by the financial oligarchy that controls “the wealth of nations”.

  5. The invisible hand of Adam Smith is alive and well and will continue to functions efficiently regardless of any so called oligarchy. Capital goes anywhere it gets a good return and is not constrained by government or oligarchies. If we had no restaurants and no plumbers on MV because of shortages or costs or prices–that phenomenon would sort itself out with other substitutes. Retail has been disrupted, due to Amazon, taxis due to Uber, Real Estate due to Homeaway and Airbnb and the saga continues. Resort destinations like Aspen have long ago solved their problems. All of this subsidizing to attract and retain workers is simply destroying economic value and slowing progress towards a better model.

    • The invisible hand of Adam Smith is as dead as a door nail (if indeed it ever functioned in reality). The invisible, manipulative and pernicious hand of international corporations/gangsters is what drives the wagon now. This has been made possible by greedy cartels and collusive governments. Adam Smith would roll over in his grave.

  6. Mr Clifford, on a number of levels you are very clear thinking. However on this one you are either paranoid or misinformed. Capitalism has been a boon for society wherever it functions and it is government and leadership worldwide that corrupts it. Capitalism under Ian Smith in Rhodesia now degraded to socialism and terror under Mugabe as you well know. The world is littered with the corpses of free markets put under by the corrosive hand of corrupt leaders. International corporations have shareholders to answer to and cant be crooks for too long. The ones that do get caught soon enough. Sherman antitrust and Robinson Patman against monopolies–all manner of regulation like Dodd Frank. If there is a pernicious hand as you say it comes from beauracracy of government with embedded employees who want entitlement. Adam smith might be slightly wounded by a fly bite but he is far from dead.

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