Fewer Foreigners Will Fill Delaware Beach Jobs
By Eric Ruth
Chris Darr remembers the looks of desperation on their faces.
Scared students from across Eastern Europe would show up every day at his office, hoping to find a job, unable to find a place to live.
Too frequently, the personnel manager at Rehoboth Beach’s Funland amusement center had no choice but to turn them away — at the time, there were simply too many students, and too few jobs.
Now, those difficult conversations shouldn’t happen so often.
A sudden shift in labor supply and demand is underway at Delaware’s resort towns, where hundreds of foreign students have traditionally found summer work each year – and where many others were left to fend for themselves in a strange land.
Because of tighter federal regulations, not as many foreign students are being allowed into the country, meaning vacationers are likely to see far fewer of the Czechs, Slovenians, Lithuanians and other nationalities that had been such a familiar presence in years past.
At the same time, because of economic pressures, more American students are entering the summer job market —and getting hired —than ever.
In some ways, the changing labor dynamic has been a nuisance for local businesses, which had grown accustomed to the reliable, cheap and plentiful supply of hard-working young adults from Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and other nations.
In other ways, however, it has been a blessing, business owners report.
The supply of international students now more closely matches the demand, meaning fewer are left to scramble for work and lodging. They are also less prone now to the abuses and hardships that often accompanied a trip across the ocean to these oceanfront towns.
“It means that the kids that are coming over are going to have a much better experience, because they do have the promise of a job, they don’t have this worry of, ‘Am I going eat, or ‘Have I been duped?’ ” said Hugh Leahy, a resident who devotes his time to helping the internationals.
New visa rules
In past years, the Delaware resorts have hosted up to 4,000 foreign students each summer as part of the U.S. State Department’s J-1 visa program, which seeks to foster cultural ties between Americans and international students by letting them work and live in U.S. communities.
This year, resort employers will likely see 1,000 students at most, said Carol Everhart, president and CEO of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce, which works with local churches to help the students during their visits.
There are several reasons for the decline, those who work closely with the students say.
New J-1 visa rules — designed in part to end the mistreatment of students by employers — limit what kinds of jobs the students can take, and demand that they have work lined up before they arrive. That makes it tougher to qualify for a visa, but also less likely that students will be virtually homeless and jobless the minute they step off the bus.
“They were walking the streets, quote-unquote ‘looking for summer employment,’ ” Leahy said. “That led to problems with crime and kids getting lured into jobs that weren’t on the up-and-up.”
“It’s a viable program, it’s a wonderful cultural exchange program, but unfortunately some people have abused it,” said Anne Marie Conestabile, program director for the United Work & Travel, an Ocean City, Md., company that places students with employers.
During the worst of the recession, the number of foreign workers began to drop in concert with the number of jobs that paid enough – or offered enough hours – to be a relatively lucrative opportunity.
“It wasn’t so many years ago that a kid from Belarus or the Czech Republic … could earn enough to pay for their schooling and their family too,” Leahy said. “That’s not so much the case in these current years.”
U.S. kids more focused
So, as the foreign work force shrank, more young Americans were able to step into the market – a shift that wasn’t necessarily a wholly positive development for employers. Over the years, businesses have come to regard U.S. students as more focused on hard partying than hard work.
“Americans come to Ocean City, they want the easy jobs, the bartender, the servers,” Conestabile said. “They want to work two days, three days [a week]. They want to work part time, and then they want to party, too.
“International students see this as a dream of a lifetime,” she added. “Employers like their work ethic, because they’re untiring. They want to work whatever hours their employer is able to offer them.”
“The Russians are excellent workers. They’ve got a better work ethic,” said Nick Caggiano Sr. owner of Nicola Pizza in Rehoboth Beach. “It’s not just lying around, taking it easy. … They want to come here and make money. They really try to impress.”
In the view of some observers, however, the shift in employment dynamics gives Americans seeking jobs an advantage they had been denied when so many foreign workers inundated the market.
The new rules raise the potential of a more level playing field, said Jacob Horwitz, lead organizer with the National Guestworkers Alliance, a Louisiana-based advocate.
“We’re not against immigration,” he said. “And those students were excited to come to the United States. The problem is when you have exchange students pitted against local workers.”
There are some signs that attitudes among U.S. students are becoming less lackadaisical as the realities of economic need and the new frugality of their once-generous parents become more apparent.
“When economic times were booming for us … there were so many jobs that we really did not have enough American students filling those positions because things were good and they didn’t need to work, and mom and dad were taking care of everything,” Everhart said.
“I get significantly more applications from American students than I used to get,” said Darr, Funland’s personnel director. “The American kids are being told by their parents … get out there and find a job.”
Considering the decline in foreign workers — and a recent rebound in beach employment — that’s good news for the beach labor market.
In 2009, total employment in Sussex County rose by 8,400 between January and July, noted George Sharpley, senior economist with the Delaware Labor Department. Most of that rise was in key resort business sectors — retail and leisure and hospitality.
In 2010, that January-to-July bump had risen to 9,100, and last year, it was 9,900, Sharpley said. “I’d expect that much, possibly a little more, this year,” he said.
So far, there don’t appear to be any labor shortages at the resorts, employers say, even with the loss of so many foreign workers.
“All-in-all, it’s for the better,” Darr said. “You’re finding the kids who really want to work, too.”