Visa Program Brings Summer Workers To N.H. - But Does It Deliver On 'Cultural' Promise?

Sep 6, 2018

About a mile from downtown North Conway is a house. A sign out front says, “Residents Only.” An old silver camping trailer sits off to one side, half buried by tall grass and weeds. A half-dozen bikes are parked in the driveway.

Inside, it’s dark and smells strongly of mildew.

Fernando, who is just about to turn 21, is leaning forward, his elbows on his knees. He and four others sit around a coffee table, laughing awkwardly about the radio reporter who knocked on their door just a few minutes ago.

We highly reccomend you listen to the full audio version of this story, which was released on the Word of Mouth podcast, and is available here: Will Work for "Culture": New Hampshire's Secret J-1 Economy

A shorter version, adapted for NHPR news, is available here:

Fernando is from Romania. He just got home an hour earlier from a shift at Dunkin Donuts. He works 10 hours a day there, he says, and then sometimes goes to a second job to pick up a few more hours.

Veronica, sitting on the couch a few feet away, also works at Dunkin Donuts. She’s from Moldova.

“They speak really quick,” she says about the customers. “You have to be like… excuse me… one more time… and maybe a little bit slower..”

Susannah, sitting next to her, laughs.  She can relate, because she’s from Moldova too. And she's also working at Dunkin Donuts this summer.

“Are you here for the experience,” I ask Fernando, “ or are you trying to make money?”

Veronica, Susannah, and Fernando – all part of the North Conway Dunkin Donuts crew.
Credit Courtesy photo

“No,” Fernando says. “I’m here for the experience. After I did some math, I don’t think I’ve made any money. Cause we don’t make a lot here.”

There are 8 students living in this house. Nearly all of them work at Dunkin Donuts. None of them are American.

They're all part of a pool of workers that prop up New England’s seasonal tourism industry: a program called the J-1 Visa.

A Cultural Workforce

Unlike other work visas, which are run by the Department of Labor, the J-1 is managed by the Department of State. That’s because it was created as a kind of educational outreach program - a subtle diplomatic arm of the cold war.

Nathan Arnold is the spokesperson for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

“The program dates back to the Fullbright-Hayes Act of 1961,” he tells me.  “It was a means to open up relations with other countries. The idea was to prevent ever having a World War III.”

In other words, J-1s aren’t coming to the US to pick strawberries or hang drywall. The program is designed to spread American values. And for that reason, there are requirements that aren’t a part of other, more formal work programs. J-1s have to work in positions that give them exposure to American culture.  

With that in mind, the J-1 is divided up into a number of categories. Some are academic, some are related to government, but the greatest number of visa-holders fall into private sector categories. There is one for au pairs, or live in nannies, one for foreign doctors, and one for camp counselors.

“We’ve found for a lot of people this is one of the only opportunities these people will ever have to come to the United States,” says Arnold, “and learn some of the skills they need for a better career.”

Ashton McGinlay and Ainslee Raven are two of those people. They’re both from Australia, and spent this summer working at a camp on Lake Sebago, Maine.

“We grew up watching summer camp movies and thinking this looks like so much fun,” Ashton told me.

“Like the Parent Trap,” Ainslee adds.

“We had nothing like that in Australia. So it was like...oh my god. We could live the American Dream for real.”

But the cultural aspect of the J-1 Visa raises a tricky question: What is American culture? What - other than language - is the State Department hoping to export?

For some J-1 categories, like camp counselors, American culture is an integrated part of the experience. Counselors are working with American kids, partaking in a classically American pasttime.

What is American culture? What is the State Department hoping to export?

However, most J-1 workers do not have a clear cultural component to their jobs.  

Of the 331,193 J-1 Visas issued last year, more than one-third went to a single category: “Summer Work Travel.”

Summer Work Travel recipients have to be enrolled in higher education, and as the name suggests, are typically here on summer break.

For the most part, these workers are filling standard low-wage service jobs. Hospitality. Waiting tables. Information desk.

So how do you gauge whether these workers are having a good cultural exchange? And who is responsible for making sure they get it?

Brought to You By Our Sponsor

The State Department may run the J-1 Visa program, but the bulk of the work is orchestrated by designated sponsor organizations.

Phil Simon is Vice President of Work Exchange Programs at a nonprofit based in Portland Maine called The Council on International Educational Exchange, or CIEE.

“Our main concern boils down to health, safety, and welfare,” Simon says. “And that they have an exchange experience while they’re here, and that it’s well thought out."

Sponsor organizations like CIEE typically offer programs that also send American students abroad.  Most make money by charging visa-holders a fee. In return, they help with the paperwork, coordinate with the federal government, and do regular check-ins with J-1 visa holders, as required by law.

They also coordinate with overseas recruiters, agents that often operate on university campuses, who interview foreign students and let them know which American businesses have job openings.

“So maybe it’s a company in Bulgaria that sells student airlines tickets...study abroad in Canada or Australia… and Summer Work Travel may be one of the programs that they offer.” 

A screenshot of a Bulgarian website that offers summer work travel arrangements

However, guaranteeing a cultural exchange would be nearly impossible, even if it were more specifically defined.

Sponsors like the Council on International Educational Exchange are mostly coordinating with visa holders through online forms, or at best, by phone and email. The best they can do is punt cultural responsibilities to the employer.

Heather Herring is a former employee at Geovisions, a New Hampshire-based sponsor, where she was a coordinator for the J-1 program.

“In the end, the employer… their needs are they have jobs to fill, as they would with any American," she says. "Our job as sponsors was to make sure that the employer also understood the cultural exchange portion of the program.” 

J-1’s might get to see their first baseball game, or take part in a community’s 4th of July holiday traditions, but beyond the broad concept of exposure, there are no actual requirements that students on Summer Work Travel be offered specific cultural opportunities during their stay.

Still, in her time with Geovisions, Heather says she saw many students benefit from the program.

“The program is not perfect,” she says. “But I believe in it. I thought it was a good idea.”

The Omni Mount Washington

For five years, the number of J-1 visa recipients coming to New Hampshire has been rising - from 3,171 in 2013, to 4,136 in 2017.  

So where are they all going?

Nearly all of the J-1s coming to the Granite State wind up in the White Mountains region, or near the seacoast, where the tourism sector is largest.  

For example: 230 J-1 Visa workers were placed in North Conway this past June, compared to only five in Nashua, the state’s 2nd most populous city. 

In some small towns, most or all of those J-1s are working at a single place of business.

According to numbers obtained through a Freedom of Information Act Request, the Omni Mount Washington employed a total of 94 people through the Summer Work Travel program in 2015 alone - making it the state’s largest employer of J-1s that year.

Nestled between two parking lots on the northern end of the hotel is a small white shed.  Inside are two plastic chairs and a broken milk crate. From inside the shed, you can look out and see the hotel’s iconic red roof.  

That’s where I found two young women smoking cigarettes, dressed all in black.

Timi Sciscó, from Slovakia, is working as a housekeeper at the hotel, and making overtime washing dishes and bussing tables. She gets paid ten dollars per hour. Her friend and coworker Boglárka Talabér, who goes by Bogi, is doing the same - but only gets $7.25. They’re both here on Summer Work Travel.

“There are quite strict rules,” Timi tells me. “Obviously, we can not use drugs or alcohol, we cannot be late more than seven minutes. We cannot be really noisy in the dorms, we cannot make parties [sic] in the dorms.”

Credit Taylor Quimby for NHPR

J-1s here live in hotel housing on site - single or double rooms, not unlike what you’d find at a college dorm.

The rooms cost them each $95 dollars per week, deducted from their paychecks. Meals are $3 a piece.

“Have you had a chance to explore New Hampshire at all?” I ask them.

“Not really, because we only have one day off per week,” says Timi.  "But we visited North Conway, and Littleton… we went to the mountains over there, and the forest. We don’t really have time,” She laughs.

“We try to work as much we can,” Bogi adds. “We are here because of the money.”

One of the main perks of the Summer Work Travel program hinges on that last word - travel.  Students on are given an unofficial grace period - several weeks of extended stay after the work portion of their visa has ended. 

In late August, I checked in with Bogi via Facebook. She did get a chance to visit New York City in August - and is heading to Miami for a few days before heading home to Bucharest. 

Desperate for Workers

The Omni Mount Washington Hotel declined to comment on this story. But they are not the only big employer of J-1s in the Mount Washington Valley. 

Janice Crawford is Executive Director of the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce, where she’s been working for more than two decades. She says that J-1s have been an important part of the region’s economy for as long as she’s been at the chamber.

'...the J-1s pay to come to the United States. They work for minimum wage. They're housed like slaves.'

“You need servers, you need dishwashers, you need bus people,” she tells me, listing off the seasonal jobs that need filling every year.

“Housekeeping…perhaps front desk…getting people into kayaks, getting people into tubes…”

There are a lot of seasonal jobs associated with tourism in New Hampshire, but according to Janice, there aren’t enough locals to fill them.

She mentions the state's low unemployment rate - which in North Conway is under 3%.

“There aren’t enough bodies!” Janice says.

John Wilson, an immigration lawyer based in Concord, says big businesses can really struggle to fill their ranks.

“I have some complete horror stories here in New Hampshire. For example we’ll have a hotel that cannot have people stay in their rooms at night because they don’t have people to clean the rooms.”

He says that the nationwide cap on more formal work visas, like the H-2B and H-2A, mean that more and more employers are turning to the J-1 in order to fill jobs. And he’s quick to raise a familiar argument: that these international students aren’t taking jobs away from the locals.

Maura Chappelle isn’t buying it. Chappelle grew up in Massachusetts, but has lived in the North Country for years. She’s used to cobbling together an income through part-time jobs and under the table favors, but for the past few years she’s been full-time at a convenience store and gas station in Jefferson. 

She wouldn’t tell me how much she gets paid - but she says her boss doesn’t skimp.

“She pays above the regional average to keep us,” Maura said. “But the truly seasonal businesses want to make as much money with the least amount of cost. And the J-1s pay to come to the United States. They work for minimum wage. They’re housed like slaves.”

Maura points out that businesses who hire J-1s sometimes pay less in taxes than they otherwise would.

J-1s don’t have to pay Medicare or social security payments , so companies that match contributions can save thousands over the long haul.

Factors like that make Maura suspect that some employers, like The Mountain View Grand in Whitefield New Hampshire, would prefer to hire J-1s over local help.

“I’ve known people that have said, 'I’m between jobs' or 'I’m not making enough',” She says. “And [I’d] be like ‘why didn’t you apply over at Mountain View?’ And they’d be like, ‘I did’. But they couldn’t get in."

Janice Crawford, of the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce, admits that J-1 workers make great employees. They're more reliable than Americans, she says.

“Our workers today don’t know how to work,” she tells me. “They have high expectations of what it should be, and how much you should pay me. And I’m not going to do it unless you meet all my demands.”

Overcrowded Apartments

The state’s biggest J-1 employers can afford to house workers nearby. For example, Storyland in Glen, New Hampshire, houses several dozen J-1s every year in the defunct Linderhof hotel right next door.  Residents can hear the roller coaster from the faded back porch of the Adirondack-style resort.

The defunct Linderhof Hotel, where Storyland houses J-1 workers.
Credit Taylor Quimby for NHPR

But a lot of smaller businesses, especially restaurants, aren’t able to provide their own housing for J-1 students. Instead, they turn to local landlords to provide rooms and beds.

One of those landlords is John Cliffe.

“A restaurant will say, 'I’m gonna hire X number of kids, can you house X number of kids?' And we’ll make an agreement that way.”

Cliffe has a number of properties in Bartlett and North Conway.  

I met him at one of his condos, located just across the street from Storyland.  It was empty at the time - a spacious two bedroom swiss chalet that he sometimes rents to J-1s.

“They don’t smoke, they don’t drink, they don’t party,” he told me. “They all work two or three jobs, and they’re great kids. You try and do your best to please everyone, but it’s kind of hard.”

Bob Nelson is in the hard-to-please camp. He’s President of RWN Property Services, which maintains one of the condos where John Cliffe has multiple units.

Nelson has known Cliffe for years, and says that he has a reputation for overcrowding his properties - putting 14 to 17 people in two-bedroom units.

Nelson says that, regardless of the ethics, the condos he manages aren’t designed to handle that many residents.  Too much waste can overload septic systems. Overused pipes can drip and lead to moldy drywall.

“So the people down below suffer for not only all the noise that’s above them, but there’s physical damage being done,” he says.

One of John’s units in particular has caused some tension. It’s on a dead-end road called Wylie Court in North Conway. That’s where many locals live side by side with apartments rented to J-1 students.

A North Conway house, owned by John Cliffe, where the Dunkin Donuts crew (Veronica, Susannah, Fernando) lives.
Credit Taylor Quimby for NHPR

Several people told me that John was housing somwhere between 14 and 18 students in the condo. 

John says that's not true. He says he only had 10 to 12 people living there. John also told me that the unit has 3 bedrooms, although condo documents have it listed as a 2-bedroom.

In  2016, Cliffe was sued by the condo association for overcrowding the property.

David Pandora, Conway’s building inspector, remembers the lawsuit.

“He had a court order from a judge that he had to reduce [the number of people living there] to seven individuals...”

“How many did he have before then?”

“Around 18.”

A few months ago, complaints from John’s neighbors prompted Pandora and Assistant Fire Chief Chad McCarthy to inspect John Cliffe’s unit at Wylie Court.

Pandora found that the units smoke and carbon monoxide detectors were not hardwired, as required by law. There were only seven beds in the apartment, per the court order. But Pandora also found a number of mattresses stored in a closet.

“There was seven or eight more of them [stacked up] in that room. So we made him remove the mattresses. Because probably his intentions was to.. I mean, who knows… set them up and reuse them after we left.”

Pandora says overcrowding J-1s isn’t a new problem.

“Oh I had a house… there was probably between 22 and 25 all crammed into three rooms. And they weren’t very big rooms.  They were sleeping in the floor and in double bunks. And it was actually a fire in an ashtray that one of them had, that caught one of the blankets on fire. Didn’t do any major damage and nobody got hurt. But I got called in by the fire department.”

After the inspection on Wylie Court, the Conway fire department gave Cliffe 30 days to fix the alarms and get rid of the extra mattresses.

He’s since complied with all of the requirements.

“I wish some of the locals would be more appreciative,” John Cliffe says. “But you know, they just look for something to complain about. Everyone knows everyone’s business.”

A Better Option?

Not far from Wylie Court  is the newest housing option for J-1 visa holders: a recently converted motel called The Work and Travel Lodge. The owner, George Wu, has marketed the units as a responsible and safe environment for J-1s, and goes out of his way to make sure there are cultural opportunities available for students who live there.

In addition to blocks of dorm-style rooms there’s a community center with a kitchen, musical instruments, and video games. There are also guided trips that students can sign up for.

Still, the operation isn’t a charity. Most of the units contain two sets of tightly packed bunk beds - and cost each resident $110 per week.

And the trips cost money too - $60 for a ride up the Mount Washington Auto Road, or $35 to go tubing down the Saco River.

Bob Nelson says that the owner, George Wu, has been renting to J-1s for years.

“He’s in it to make money,” Nelson says. “Don’t get me wrong. But he is doing it right.”

A History of Exploitation

Sponsor organizations, like CIEE and Geovisions, say they explicitly screen J-1 participants to make sure they are coming to the United States for a cultural experience. They don’t want people who are applying with the intention to make lots of money.

But that hasn’t stopped people like Janice Crawford and John Cliffe from assuming that for most students, the opportunity pays off.

“It’s a lot better here than in their country,” John told me. “And what they make in a week in our country, they don’t make in a month…[The J-1s are] really excited to be working here.”

That may be true for some, but there are J-1 students from just about every country, and every background imaginable.

And as it turns out, many of them will go empty-handed.  

I asked Susannah, one of the Dunkin Donuts crew members who I met in North Conway (the house they are living in is rented to them by John Cliffe, by the way) whether she would make any money by the end of her stay.

“No,” she laughed.  Then she reconsidered. “Maybe, but it’s not going to be… how do you say this? It’s not my first goal, and it’s not going to be all I spent to come here.”

Fernando is in the same situation. In fact, he’s not planning to do any traveling during his grace period, because he doesnt’ want to go home with debt.

All in all, students can wind up spending three, four, even five thousand dollars in order to get here.  That price tag includes the fees that are charged by sponsor organizations in the United States, recruiters who do the same overseas, visa fees from the State Department, airfare (which isn’t covered by employers) and more.

Fernando says he and many other Romanian students even take out loans in order to pay their J-1 fees.  

“I have a friend who wanted to come, and they didn’t approve of his loan. And he already paid half of the money for the U.S. And he just lost it.”

Whether it’s because they don’t want to get in trouble, or because they’re genuinely having a great time, Fernando and the others aren’t quick to complain. And in fact, nearly every J-1 student I spoke to for this story told me that it was well worth the trip - that it was an overall good experience.

But according to Cathleen Caron, workers on the J-1 are especially vulnerable when it comes to workforce exploitation.

“The problem With the J-1 program is that it relies on the benevolence of the employer.”

Cathleen Caron is Executive Director of Justice in Motion, a group that advocates for migrant workers.

“So if you’re going to have a good employer you’re going to have a good experience. The problem is that’s not guaranteed to happen because of the structure.”

When she says “the structure” - what she means is a lack of direct oversight.

“Many many employers are using J-1s just because it’s the easier visa to get,” she says. “If you want to bring in a worker, and exploit them and pay very low wages the chances of you getting caught are very very low.”

Over the years, a few high-profile cases of J-1 exploitation have made national news. In 2011, hundreds of J-1 workers and local labor organizers protested conditions at factory, where students were packaging Hershey’s chocolate for low wages and disproportionate housing costs.

Afterwards, the State Department revised J-1 statues and prohibited a number of industries from employing J-1s in the future.

In 2013, fifteen J-1 employees at a Pennsylvania McDonald's chain went on strike.

They were being housed in the franchisees basement, eight people to a room, and docked nearly all of their pay in order to cover rent.

Some were given just a few hours a week, while others were forced to work 25 hour shifts with no overtime pay.  

In rare cases, exploitation has been more extreme.

“Two girls from Ukraine offered to work in a yoga studio in Miami, and there is no yoga studio in Miami,” she recounts. “And they’re pushed into sex trafficking. It ended up being a criminal conviction. Is this what we want as a cultural exchange for young foreigners coming to the U.S.?”

Sponsor companies are charged with providing a good cultural exchange for the hundreds of thousands of J-1 visa holders - but simply checking in with them every month is hard enough.

CIEE alone brings in about 20,000 Summer Work Travelers every year. That’s somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 legally mandated check-ins being conducted every summer. Given a total workforce numbering in the 100s, that’s a daunting logistical task.

The New Hampshire based Geovisions, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was the sponsor that oversaw the McDonalds students who protested in 2015. They were reprimanded by the State Department for failing to ensure the safety of their J-1s, and had the overall number of students they were allowed to work with reduced by 15 percent.

Heather Herring no longer works for Geovisions - and she wasn’t there when the scandal happened - but she says that the company stepped up their reporting and oversight after the McDonald’s incident.

“Yes, and that was a big concern, and okay, instead of asking 15 questions, we’re asking 50 questions. So it definitely got laborious to verify a job offer, for good reason.”

Geovisions conducts its check-ins through an online form.

There are boxes for names, for email addresses, for places of residence and number of hours worked per week.

Some fields are optional, some required - as indicated by a small red asterisk next to each box.  

Toward the bottom is a phone number, for students who might need emergency assistance.

For the most part, it’s just like any other online form. Put in your contact info, and press submit.

The last question stands out, though. It’s required, and leaves enough space for a full paragraph answer.

“Name three things that you have learned about American culture.”

Apparently, they save the toughest question for last.