Every June, about 80 foreign college students arrive in Hyannis to sort laundry, iron sheets, and fold towels at Cape Cod Commercial Linen Service Inc. Students from Asia and Europe make up a quarter of the summer staff at Chatham Bars Inn in Chatham. Near Phippsburg, Maine, two dozen young adults, mainly from Eastern Europe, will spend their summer breaks working as housekeepers, dishwashers, and kitchen staff at the Sebasco Harbor Resort.
“They’re doing a lot of jobs that honestly it’s hard to find Maine kids to do,” said Bob Smith, owner of the Sebasco Harbor Resort. Without the foreign students, especially those who can stay into the fall, he added, “We’d be dead.”
Almost 17,000 college students from around the world worked in seasonal jobs in New England last year, and in doing so, have become the latest flashpoint in the battle over foreign workers and American jobs.
With the economy still struggling and teen unemployment at record levels, supporters of tougher immigration policies say a State Department program that brings in these foreign students is displacing young Americans in need of work.
The Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington research group that favors limiting immigration, maintains that the program provides incentives to hire these foreign workers, since employers don’t have to pay Medicare, Social Security, or unemployment taxes, and depresses wages, since the students are usually willing for work for less.
But those in the local tourism industry say foreign students are vital to the operation of hotels, restaurants, and other businesses during the short peak season. Cape Cod needs an additional 25,000 workers every summer, and there aren’t enough locals to fill the jobs, said Wendy Northcross, chief executive of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce.
“Our labor pool is so finite,” she said, citing the Cape’s large population of retirees. “We really depend on this young, intelligent worker coming in that’s anxious to learn about our culture and roll up their sleeves and work.”
The State Department program, know as Summer Work Travel, was created in 1961 to promote cultural exchanges between Americans and international citizens by issuing temporary J-1 visas for college students to work in the United States during school vacations.
Students from around the world pay several thousand dollars apiece to private organizations — authorized by the State Department — that help them find temporary US jobs.
Together, these agencies make more than $100 million a year in fees from students and their families, according to the Center for Immigration Studies. Employers pay no fees to these agencies, as they typically would to US staffing firms, further tipping the scales in favor of foreign workers, said the center’s research fellow Jerry Kammer, who wrote a study critical of the program, entitled “Cheap Labor as Cultural Exchange.”
“That is a very dignified mantle for what has become a huge money-making industry that has the effect of disadvantaging many young Americans at a time of record youth unemployment,” Kammer said.
Less than 26 percent of US teens age 16 to 19 had jobs last year, the lowest teen employment rate since the end of World War II, according to Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies. Only 30 percent of college students had jobs, a 45-year low.
Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, which helps teens and young adults find jobs, said he doesn’t blame foreign students for the lack of opportunities.
Instead, he suggested that a program be created to connect local young people to seasonal tourism jobs around New England.
“A whole generation is coming of work age with half as much prior work experience,” he said. “The consequences for a productive workforce are profound.”
Despite high unemployment, business owners say they still aren’t able to attract enough Americans to work as dishwashers and housekeepers.
“It’s jobs the American students don’t want to take,” said Michael Briggs, resort manager of the Chatham Bars Inn, where up to 175 workers are Asian and Eastern European students. “We put the ads out there, but we just don’t get any takers.”
Bunker Hill Community College student Julson Etienne has applied for several jobs as a cashier and student mentor since his job at the college library ended in April, leaving him without an income to pay for food and rent. Etienne, 22, said he would gladly work in the kitchen or transport luggage at a Cape Cod hotel, but has no interest in washing dishes or working as housekeeper.
“I can do better than that,” he said.
At the Orleans Inn in Orleans, owner Ed Maas said he is hiring fewer foreign workers as the weak economy had led more US students to apply, but he still can’t find enough Americans to fill all his jobs.
About 10 of his 50-member staff this summer are from overseas, down from 25 in 2009.
The foreign students, he added, are excellent workers, some with six years of college behind them as they study to become doctors and engineers. “They’re just so enthusiastic and so grateful for being here,” Maas said.
The State Department has cut the number of visas it issues for the Summer Work Travel program to 109,000 a year, down from 153,000 in 2008, and recently adopted rules aimed at protecting American jobs. Agencies that place foreign students must confirm that they are not displacing US workers or sending the students to companies that had layoffs in the previous four months.
The State Department is also adopting rules to protect foreign students, following a 2010 Associated Press investigation that found some working in strip clubs and in situations students compared to indentured servitude.
Last summer, hundreds of foreign students walked off their jobs to protest conditions at a chocolate distribution plant in Hershey, Pa.
The new rules prohibit Summer Work Travel participants from working in warehouses, jobs that require driving, or overnight shifts, among other regulations.
At Cape Cod Commercial Linen Service, the summertime staff consists largely of students from Bulgaria, Poland, Lithuania, Brazil, Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey, who work for $8 an hour, plus a bonus if they stay until the end of the season.
Without these students, owner Jeffrey Ehart said he doesn’t know where he would find workers.
About 40 locals responded to ads he put on Craigslist and in the Cape Cod Times in the spring, but not one showed up to a job fair for interviews, he said.
“The ones that we have hired, Americans,” he said, “they’ll work a day and quit.”