Editor’s note: This is part three in a series of stories examining J-1 student visa workers on the Kenai Peninsula.
By Jenny Neyman
As advertised, the J-1 student visa program is a win-win for everyone involved.
International university students get to spend a summer in the United States, seeing the sights, experiencing the culture and improving their English while making enough working to cover their living and travel expenses. Employers tap into an eager, prearranged labor source, especially helpful during increased seasonal workforce demands. International exchange sponsor agencies get a $3,000 to $6,000 fee from each student to arrange the visa paperwork, facilitate the exchange process and play matchmaker between employers and students.
As with most things sounding too good to be true, those involved say the J-1 program in practice isn’t as idyllic as the theory.
On the Kenai Peninsula, J-1 international students work a variety of entry-level, general labor jobs, primarily at seafood processing plants and fast-food restaurants. Employers say they can be a benefit during the busy summer season.
Salamatof Seafoods typically employs about 20 J-1 student workers a summer, most often from Kazakhstan and Turkey.
“The benefit is they are available to work all the hours that we need them for. Basically they’re just up here to work, we can count on them to be here for the whole season and they’re usually eager to work all the hours we need them for,” said Anna Evanson, office assistant.
With the record-breaking sockeye salmon run this summer, Evanson said Salamatof had a hard time finding enough workers, even with the J-1 students, which makes them particularly useful in busy years. Language and cultural differences can be a bit of a barrier, but overall the students are good workers.
“The biggest challenge is most don’t speak English so it can be hard to communicate with them, and they’re from totally different places and may do things totally different. They’re really good workers and really eager to put in the hours, even when they work 16-hour days,” Evanson said.
Scott Cunningham, owner of McDonald’s restaurant franchises in Kenai, Soldotna and Homer, was called about the program three years ago. Spirit Cultural Exchange, one of about 60 designated sponsor organizations accredited through the U.S. State Department to facilitate the J-1 exchange program, contacted Cunningham and asked if he would participate as an employer.
“I think the thing that got me interested is I can kind of pick and choose the dates,” he said.
Summer traffic on the Kenai creates a need for extra seasonal workers at McDonald’s.
“We get so busy in the month of July,” Cunningham said. “We absolutely got clobbered.”
His staffing is different every year, and the local summer workforce pool tends to be drained first and foremost by the fish-processing industry. If the fish plants are busy and hiring, they tend to scoop up a lot of the available workforce, making a reliable source of temporary workers alluring.
Cunningham said he could fill his seasonal openings without international workers, but that the J-1 program is an easy solution — in theory, anyway. No posting job openings, no going over applications, no interviews, no reference checks just to hire someone for a few months. Spirit does all that for him. He just tells them how many workers he wants, when he wants them to start and for how long he needs them.
“There’s just such a small window where we need a lot more people. It’s kind of stupid hiring a lot of people when in six weeks I only need half of you,” Cunningham said. “We would be fine without them (the J-1 workers), but it’s a help. It’s a couple more positions that we don’t have to actively search for to fill.”
He’s taken four to six international workers through Spirit each of the last three summers, and only at the Soldotna restaurant. This year’s crop was six female university students from China. They’re placed in food-prep jobs, since the language barrier would make customer service difficult. Spirit stipulates that the workers will be proficient in English, but that isn’t always the case, Cunningham said.
“They can get around OK,” Cunningham said. “We’ve been fairly fortunate. Most of the people that we’ve had have been fairly good. But just like American workers, so to speak, some are better than others.”
There isn’t a financial component to hosting J-1 workers, Cunningham said. The students pay a $3,000 to $6,000 fee to the sponsor organization they utilize, such as Spirit, but McDonald’s doesn’t pay anything to be a participating employer. Neither do employers get paid for taking on international workers.
The students are paid the same as any other newly hired employee in a similar position, including overtime compensation. Federal income tax is assessed on their earnings, although Social Security and Medicare deductions are not.
To participate as an employer with Spirit, Cunningham guarantees the workers 35 hours a week, with the idea being they have a source of income to live on while in the U.S. But he can take disciplinary actions, including firing, if need be, as he could with any other employees.
“I told Spirit, if somebody is not doing their job, I need to be able to take action. We’ve never had to, but I do have that authority,” Cunningham said.
The students can quit a job at will, too. One of the six Chinese university students at the Soldotna McDonald’s this summer quit and went back home early. Different sponsor organizations operate slightly differently, with some assigning J-1 students to jobs in the U.S., and others allowing the students to find their own job from a provided list. The visa program generally allows a window of time outside of work — usually a few weeks after their job ends — where the students can travel in the U.S. before having to return home. Students must keep in touch with their sponsor organization and update them on their whereabouts and travel plans, and Cunningham also checks in with Spirit to report on his workers’ status — if they’re still present and employed, or if their employment has ended. In most programs, quitting or being fired from a job requires an immediate return home. No work, no play.
As an employer, especially one trying to manage the summer slam of increased customer traffic when fishing season heats up on the Kenai, Cunningham said he sees the J-1 workers as basically any other employees. They work the same shifts, do the same jobs and are subject to the same pay scale and employment practices as any other worker. Although they do add a little cultural flair to the workplace.
“They land in Kenai and their eyes get real big. ‘We’re in the middle of the forest,’ and that was a quote. I said, ‘No, this is town.’ They go, ‘Really?’ They’re used to millions of people,” Cunningham said. “The temperature is definitely colder than they’re used to. And seeing moose, they were just completely in awe. I think for the most part it’s a good experience for most of them.”
But language barriers and cultural differences can be a bit of a headache if they interfere with job performance or general efficiency in the workplace.
“Some interact better than others. Last year’s group, they just really engaged with the crew. They were hosting dinners and making traditional Chinese food. I’m not seeing that from the group I have this year. They come to work and they go home or wherever. And that’s fine. To each their own,” Cunningham said.
By far Cunningham’s main dissatisfaction with the program is the same one many of the participants have. And it isn’t endemic to the exchange students, or their employment. It’s a similar problem faced by residents of the Kenai-Soldotna area who work minimum-wage jobs.
“My absolutely biggest frustration with this program has nothing to do with Spirit and nothing to do with the workers. It has to do with us, with our community. We don’t have transportation, and we don’t have housing,” Cunningham said. “The way it’s set up, Spirit would like the employer to take care of housing and transportation. And I told them up front, ‘I’m not a landlord,’ that they would have to do it. And every year the housing and transportation has been a hassle.”
There are no affordable, furnished, short-term housing options in town close to where the students work. If they stay beyond walking distance, there’s no public transportation to affordably and conveniently get them back and forth.
“I have combed the town. Last year I almost went door to door to apartment buildings looking for something at least minimally furnished that will do a short-term rent. Nobody wants to do anything. You can get a couple people who will do six months, but most everybody wants to do a year and very few are furnished,” Cunningham said.
The first summer Soldotna McDonald’s had J-1 workers, they stayed in a hostel on Arc Loop, which since closed. Last year the Timberwolf Lodge across the highway was willing to take short-term renters, but not this year. In the summer, most places offering short-term rentals are targeting the visitor crowd and charging premium rates.
“You contact the B and Bs and hotels and say, ‘Well, what if you had somebody for four months, what kind of deal could you give them?’ And they say, ‘It’s $145 a night.’ Well holy cow, that’s not going to work. Most people don’t want to discount their room rates in the summertime, and I can see their point,” Cunningham said.
Transportation is another problem for J-1 students. There is no bus service, and the places workers find housing may be miles away from where they work.
“The first year every one of them bought bicycles. Last year one of the guys that came — my hat’s off to this one — he went out and bought a thousand-dollar car. And three months later, he sold it for 900 bucks,” Cunningham said.
Many J-1 workers find affordable lodging at Kenai Landing off of Cannery Road. For workers at McDonald’s or Taco Bell in Soldotna, that’s 10-plus miles away. Cunningham said other members of his crew with vehicles have been willing to pitch in getting their J-1 co-workers to and from work, but it’s not a great solution.
“It’s still a huge hassle not having public transportation and not having something readily available in town,” he said.
Should it be his hassle, or any employer’s? Any other employee would be responsible for finding his or her own housing and getting to and from work on time.
“Some of the kids we’ve gotten in are very do-it-yourself-type people. They don’t need anybody to hold their hand, they’re ready to go. And some of the groups we’ve gotten in want us to do everything for them,” Cunningham said.
But making those arrangements with the lack of options available on the central Kenai Peninsula can be challenging, as Cunningham and others in the community who have tried to help the J-1 students have seen firsthand. It’s even more so for students coming from another culture and speaking another language, particularly when they don’t expect to have to find their own housing and rides.
Spirit Cultural Exchange doesn’t help with such matters. There is no representative locally, or even in the state of Alaska. The company is based in Illinois.
“I can typically get a response, but it’s all email, I’ve talked to people live but it’s not like they’re sitting down here. They’re not in this marketplace so they don’t understand firsthand,” Cunningham said.
“I really view it just as an employer, it’s just another avenue to get employees for our busy season,” he said. “It seems to me I always end up spending way more time on it than I want to.”