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.”