A flood of foreign workers, a sagging economy and terrible weather have combined to create a turnabout in the Vineyard summer job market: too many workers and not enough work.
Employers across the Island report that they have many job applicants but far fewer jobs to offer this year as they tighten their belts, which includes cutting down on hiring.
Some businesses report a backlog of several hundred applications. Many of those applications are from foreign workers, many of them Eastern Europeans. While in previous years workers have come to the Island from countries like Bulgaria, Belarus and Russia, this year they also hail from countries that include Albania, Kazakhstan, Romania and Moldova.
Many of these workers are on J-1 visas, cultural exchange visas that are issued for between three and six months. The J-1 visas are distinct from H-2B visas, which allow foreign workers to stay for a longer period of time but must be sponsored by a specific employer.
Restrictions on the number of H-2B visas issued by the federal government reportedly have led to more foreign workers using J-1 visas, which do not require them to secure a job before coming to the United States. And a growing number of agencies in the United States and Eastern Europe charge a fee to help students and young people attain visas for work and travel in the U.S. during the summer.
The result, according to many Vineyard employers, is a high number of foreign workers on the streets seeking work.
“We see a stream of these kids looking for jobs . . . about a dozen a day at least,” said Robert Kosienski, manager of the Vineyard Haven Mad Martha’s ice cream shop. “They are all looking for full-time work, but we can only hire so many. I tell them to come back in a few weeks, when things are busier, but even then there won’t be enough jobs.”
He said many of the applicants he has seen are from American University in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, a private liberal arts college with students from 26 countries which uses English as the language of instruction. The college works with agencies that arrange for students to get J-1 visas and live and work on Cape Cod during the summer.
Mr. Kosienski said many students took out loans to buy plane tickets, or enter into contracts with brokers that arrange for visas, making their need to find a job even more pressing.
“Some of them have paid anywhere between $500 and $3,000 to come to the States. In my opinion some agencies in Bulgaria are taking advantage of these young people. They are struggling here . . . nobody told them that there may not be a job waiting for them when they get here,” he said.
He added: “I’ve heard stories about mass groups sleeping on South Beach, other people sleeping in backyards and alleys . . . it’s sad, really.”
Jeff Munroe, manager of the Lillian Manter Memorial Youth Hostel in West Tisbury, said some workers on J-1 and H-2B visas came to the Island with a promise of employment, but found the job was different from what they expected when they arrived. While many workers had jobs lined up with larger employers, like Stop & Shop in Edgartown, they were not able to get enough hours, he said.
“They come here thinking they can work 40 hours, but then they get here and it’s only 20 hours. And you can’t blame the employers; things have been slow because of the economy and the weather, and there are more people than ever looking for work,” he said.
Mr. Munroe said he talked to foreign workers who have expressed second thoughts about coming here.
“I think some of them have considered going home, but some of them can’t. They borrowed money to come here, and need to make a certain amount before they go back,” he said.
Wendy Norcross, chief executive officer of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, said there is an overabundance of foreign workers on Cape Cod this summer as well. The biggest reason is the recent limits on H-2B visas coupled with the surge in visa brokers both here and abroad, she said.
“The brokers have this idea that they can just send the college students here and they will find jobs easily. That has worked in previous years, but it’s not working this year,” she said.
Ms. Norcross said her office receives a high volume of phone calls every day from brokers looking to place foreign workers in jobs on the Cape and Islands. The sheer number of those calls is overwhelming, she said. “We get calls from New Mexico, California, Maine . . . the people at these agencies are trying to help. But there just aren’t enough jobs. It has gotten to the point where we don’t even return half the phone calls.”
She noted another troubling aspect of the J-1 students: employers are under no obligation to keep workers on staff. If business is slow or some conflict occurs, they may fire or cut hours, no questions asked, she said.
Peter Martell, owner of the Wesley Hotel in Oak Bluffs, said he already has heard employment horror stories involving foreign workers.
“I know about three girls who were supposed to work at a particular job, but when they got here the [employer] told them: No job, we don’t need you. And I don’t think that’s right. These kids came here to help out . . . they have feelings, too,” he said.
Yesterday afternoon a pair of young Bulgarian women walked up Circuit avenue in Oak Bluffs, stopping in various stores and boutiques hoping to find a job opening. One of the girls, Murina Roskeiv, 20, said she came here to work in an ice cream shop during the day and as a waitress in a restaurant at night.
But she has been unable to find a restaurant job anywhere, and is now often met with contempt when she stops in to ask about job openings. She did find work in an ice cream shop, although she is not working enough hours, while her friend Iskra, 24, has not found steady work and is considering going back home or moving to Boston for the summer.
“Every place we go we ask [about a job] and every place is the same answer: come back later, come back later . . . we came here to make money; now we are losing money,” she said.