Every summer, the Vineyard’s population grows tenfold, from 17,000 to as much as 200,000 at its peak. With the influx of beachcombers, bar revelers, and celebrity guests comes the unceremonious arrival of foreign workers who cater to those vacationers’ every need.
They come from all over the world: Bulgaria, Romania, England, Ireland, Georgia, the Philippines, Macedonia, Croatia, Albania, Bosnia, Turkey, Jamaica, South Korea, Spain, and more.
The J-1 Visa Program allows young people overseas seeking summer employment to work for the summer months, and to travel to the U.S. and explore the states when they finish their summer employment.
The workers fill the gap left by a shortage of working-age people. While Island businesses do hire young Vineyarders, the pool of available workers is not enough to fill the demand. According to 2018 data from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, the unemployment rate in Edgartown plummets from 11 percent in January to an average of 3.1 percent between the months of June and August. In fact, Massachusetts is No. 2 in hiring J-1 workers, just behind New York.
The application process to get a J-1 visa is a multistep procedure that requires sponsorship, a high level of English fluency, and self-motivation. It’s up to the workers to find their own jobs.
According to the Exchange Visitor Program, there are currently 868 J-1 visa holders working in Chilmark, Vineyard Haven, West Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown. The Times walked around the Island’s busiest town centers — Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown — to discover the origins of the people who scoop our ice cream, check us in to our hotels, and taxi us home after a long day in the sun.
I first met Kate Zuldaeva on a bright day in early June, just as she was finishing her morning shift at the Net Result. She was eager to sit outside in the sun and talk to me about her experience with the J-1 process. A week before I met her, she would not have been as forthcoming. “I psychologically couldn’t talk to people; I had this block. I was afraid to be misunderstood,” Kate said.
She explained that her Russian accent made it difficult for some customers to understand her, and she felt ashamed to have to repeat herself. She felt it was easier to work in the back of the store, where she didn’t have to speak to people.
Kate studies English linguistics in Moscow, where she attends college. Part of the reason why she decided to work in the U.S. over the summer was to improve her English. So it didn’t take long for her to face her fears and overcome her speech paralysis. She now says that she loves her job selling lobsters, tuna, and sea bass to hungry customers, even though, she says, “My hands smell like fish no matter what I do!”
Kate is not alone in her struggle to speak English on the job. Andrei Gheorghiu from Romania greets guests as a bellhop for the Kelley House in Edgartown. However, it was a journey for him to get to the front of the house. “The first year they had me work in the back of the house because my English was so bad,” Andrei said. A quick learner, Andrei improved his language skills immensely over the past three years.
“I think I learned more English in one year here than in 12 years of school!” he laughed.
Andrei said that he thoroughly enjoys working in Martha’s Vineyard because of its “good vibes,” how even strangers are friendly to you, and, admittedly, the high wages. Back home in Galati, a town in eastern Romania, he joked that he would need to work for “three years, compared, to get one week’s [worth of pay] in America.”
His calculation may be an exaggeration, but his statement rings true. Many workers arrive on the shores of the Island year after year because they know that the salary they receive here will far surpass what they can earn back home. The pay on the Island is also more than what they would make at other summer destinations across the U.S. At $12 per hour, Massachusetts minimum wage is one of the highest in the country.
“The best money is here,” said Filip Pekic, manager of the Black Dog outlet in Oak Bluffs. “It’s so hard to find housing, as we all know, but if you find that, then you’re all set. Employers pay higher hourly wages because they know that prices here are higher, and housing is more expensive.”
When Filip first arrived on the Vineyard in 2016, he hoped to find a lot more financial security, job mobility, and freedom of expression than he did back home in Serbia. He experienced all that and more. He is now happily married, and has obtained a green card. The couple live on the Vineyard year-round. Filip considers himself very lucky.
Filip started as a J-1 worker three years ago, folding sweatshirts and manning the cash register part-time at the Black Dog store in Edgartown. In Serbia, he was pursuing a master’s degree.
“Then my manager asked me to be full-time. Then I was appointed to assistant manager, and now I’m running this outlet [in Oak Bluffs] as the manager,” he said with a smile.
While he succeeded in climbing the labor ladder rather quickly, he still has to supplement his income to make ends meet. He now picks up shifts at Sharky’s in Oak Bluffs a few days a week “because everything is so expensive here.”
Indeed, the town that employs the most J-1 workers every year is the one with the most upscale businesses on the Island. Edgartown’s high-end hotels and restaurants recruit more than half of all the exchange workers, which this year amounts to approximately 505 people. Twenty-one-year-old Khaliun Ulaankhuu from Mongolia is one of the posh town’s many summer helpers. She works at Portobello Road, tidying bookshelves and selling fun tchotchkes.
Many J-1 workers come to Martha’s Vineyard from the American University located in Bulgaria. Like many college-age laborers here, Khaliun was referred to her job by a fellow Mongolian friend who had worked at the shop the year before. “I love my job,” she said, “I get to work with my schoolmates from American University in Bulgaria.” After studying computer science during the year, coming to the Island is a welcome retreat. She feels comfortable here because she knows she is surrounded by many other foreign students.
Romario Wilson feels the same way, “It’s a lot like home,” he shared with me between shifts at Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium in Oak Bluffs. Wilson is one of many young Jamaicans who arrive at the beginning of summer. In fact, everyone working the morning shift at Ben and Bill’s that day was from Jamaica. “There’s a lot of us here. I can still eat Jamaican food, do Jamaican activities … People are friendly; I like it here,” he said. Wilson is here scooping ice cream for the third year in a row. However, he shared that it gets more and more difficult to obtain a work visa every year, and he is worried about what that means for his future.
When I talked to Kate at Net Result in mid-June, she shared that she was hesitant to reapply to the J-1 program, partially because she knew her chances of acceptance had dwindled. “They give preference to new people. It goes down from 99 percent acceptance for your first year to 50 percent for your second year.”
There is also significant culture shock that occurs when a J-1 student, often arriving alone, first exits the plane or departs from the ferry. Kate, along with the other young people I spoke to, shared similar feelings of “loneliness” and “uncertainty.”
But Kate said she has always dreamed of traveling the world, and working in the U.S. over the summer seemed like the right choice. Although, she said, it did take her awhile to understand the strong Boston accent.
“I am happy [with my experience],” said Kate. “Even if you have obstacles, we are adults now, we have to figure out how to deal with it. This experience, I will need it later [in life].”