KITTERY, Maine — Next month, more than 3,000 J1 Visa workers will arrive in the state to help restaurants, hotels and others handle millions of summertime visitors, during their three-to-four month stays.
The foreign students traveling to work in the United States on their summer break are thought of as critical additions to the Maine workforce, at a time when many seasonal businesses are struggling to hire local workers to maintain operations. The same goes for New Hampshire and Massachusetts, which also see thousands of J1 workers.
Last year, 90,000 students came to the United States through the State Department’s summer work and travel program, and about 7,300 were from Romania.
But with the population and worker influx comes issues of housing and transportation. In Kittery Tuesday, the town’s J1 Community Support Group held a stakeholders meeting at the Kittery Community Center, where they readied for the students’ arrival, and attempted to talk through the responsibilities of the town and its employers to provide for them.
“Kittery is growing and our area is growing as an economic area,” said Town Manager Kendra Amaral. “We know that (employers are) having a hard time getting employees, keeping people. The J1 program provides an opportunity.”
Amaral urged a “holistic approach” to the J1 program, where she asked employers not just to provide work for the students, but to “make sure they have a safe environment and positive experience.”
Frank DeSarro, of the Kittery support group, said they are expecting 100 students in Kittery, “a couple hundred” in neighboring Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 200 in Ogunquit and 100 in York. The support group provides students with opportunities for potluck gatherings, trips to the beach and Boston, and a highly-anticipated visit to Harvard University.
Most students pay $125 in rent per week, and totaling together airfare, fees to their agency back in their country, and weekly necessity purchases such as food, a student making $12 an hour working 40 hours a week would barely see a net gain, DeSarro said. Because of this, many of them obtain second jobs. Some community members house students, where others seek to rent a room somewhere.
DeSarro said J1 students in Maine last summer contributed $13.5 million to the economy.
“The local economy benefits from it,” he said. “The employers have reliable workers, and obviously they’re the great benefactors in all of this.”
Employers at Tuesday’s meeting included McDonald’s, Robert’s Maine Grill, Bob’s Clam Hut, Wentworth by the Sea, Dunkin’, and Pepperrell Cove Restaurant Group.
“We understand the value of the relationships we have with the J1 students,” said a representative from Robert’s. “Food, transportation, those are things we really try to take a forefront on make sure they have access to. Our restaurant, like many others, provides a meal for them every time they work.”
Because most of the students use bicycles as their main mode of transportation, Kittery Police Det. Brian Cummer spoke about bicycle safety to the group. In the past, the town has seen some bike accidents with J1 students.
One sponsor agency representative said students from Bulgaria and Romania are “very popular in Maine,” because they have the longest summer breaks and can remain working through September, when seasonal businesses are still busy.
Dunkin’ provides bicycles for their employees, for example.
Most of the students will arrive mid-June. Pepperrell Cove Group Chef Henry Ares said he already has one worker from Russia, and awaits four more from Romania.
“We encourage everyone to do as much as they can to make things go smoothly this summer,” DeSarro said.