Ocean City Today

House bill puts J-1 program at risk

By Greg Ellison | Mar 22, 2018

(March 23, 2018) Ocean City’s annual flow of J-1 visa student workers could be blocked if the Maryland General Assembly passes legislation prohibiting foreign labor contractors from collecting fees from program participants.

Last Tuesday, the House Economic Matters Committee heard testimony for HB1493, sponsored by Delegate Kriselda Valderrama (D-Prince George’s County). It followed a Feb. 20 Senate Finance Committee hearing on SB526, a companion bill sponsored by Sen. Susan Lee (D-Montgomery County).

Although the bills’ focus was said to be farm workers and au pairs, Valderrama also expressed concerns about the J-1 Visa Summer Work and Travel Program, which falls under the purview of the U.S. State Department.

Created in the 1960s as a vehicle for cultural exchange, the program has changed over the years, Valderrama said.

“The work component of the program has overcome the cultural exchange proponent, causing some at the state department to question whether the program should be eliminated outright,” she said.

Valderrama said the state department assigns approximately 30 staff members to oversee roughly 300,000 annual J-1 workers.

“It’s easy to see why oversight might meet the needed standards to protect these very important workers,” she said.

Under the proposed legislation farm and foreign labor contractors would be licensed by the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Specific to the J-1 program, the bill would prohibit sponsoring agencies from charging participants fees, which are used to cover staffing and program infrastructure requirements established by the State Department.

By using J-1 seasonal workers, businesses cut hiring costs an average of 8 percent, Valderrama said.

“Employers don’t have to advertise these jobs and aren’t required to pay any contribution to Social Security, Medicare or unemployment insurance,” she said. “It’s understandable why they (the foreign students) are so highly sought.”

Tom Harriman, attorney for Cultural Homestay International, said approximately 6,000 J-1 program participants worked in Maryland during 2016.

Cultural Homestay International, a nonprofit based in San Rafael, California, has brought more than a quarter million students and young adults to the U.S. for educational and cultural programs since opening in 1980.

“We operate in 50 states [and] if we had to be licensed in 50 states it would be a nightmare,” he said. “We get paid because the student pays a fee … to work in America for the summer.”

Harriman said sponsoring agencies are vetted and approved by the state department and often accompany employers overseas to interview candidates. He also said sufficient oversight exists to safeguard against abuses related to human trafficking.

“They must have a job to get the J-1 visa,” he said. “They have a job sheet … the embassy sees that describes their hours, wages [and] whether they’re getting housing … so they know where they’re going.”

Sponsoring agencies like Cultural Homestay also provide assistance with securing living arrangements, Harriman said.

“We attempt to arrange housing with all the jobs [and] we have local people who are there to make sure their housing is ok,” he said.

The bill would also require “the foreign labor contractor or the employer pay all fees, including visa application fees, border crossing fees, transportation costs,” or other fees related to work recruitment in the U.S.

“If the bill passed, there wouldn’t be a J-1 program because an employer is not going to pay,” he said. “We’re not being doomsday … it would eliminate the summer worker travel program.”

Carrie Lynch, Ocean City seasonal workforce committee chair, who also works as a local program director for the American Scandinavian Student Exchange, said J-1 workers are typically provided personalized attention.

“I see every single participant that comes to Ocean City,” she said. “Myself and my staff take care of them all summer.”

Lynch said by eliminating the ability of U.S.-based, mostly nonprofit, sponsoring organizations, to collect fees for services from participants, the public/private partnership the drives the J-1 visa program would wither.

“If these provisions go into effect the J-1 … program will cease to exist in Maryland and business in our state and the local economy will suffer,” she said.

Ashley Harrison, of Harrison Group Hotels and Restaurants, the largest private employer in Worcester County, said the J-1 program provides about a quarter of the roughly 800 seasonal employees she hires.

“Until a few years ago, I personally went to each country that I hired students from [and] I met with them face to face,” she said.

Under State Department regulations, Harrison said employers are interviewed and sponsoring agencies are restricted from assigning J-1 student workers hazardous tasks, commission pay, agricultural jobs or exclusively graveyard shifts.

“I must also certify that I have not displaced American workers in order to hire a J-1 student,” she said. “[They] receive the same salary I would pay an American worker for the same position.”

While coming of age working in her family’s business, Harrison said numerous experiences occurred during time spent working with staff from abroad that illustrate the cultural exchange aspect of the program.

“I learned more about foreign relations and world history through conversations that stretched late into the night than in any classroom setting,” she said.

Last summer, a White House interagency group lobbied to eliminate the J-1 visa program altogether in what is said was an effort to protect American jobs. Congress subsequently expressed its support of the program.

“At a time in our nation where nationalism seems to be on the rise, I think it is very important to allow a cultural exchange program to continue on unencumbered,” Harrison said.

If the Economic Matters Committee returns a favorable report, the bill would move forward towards potential passage. Valderrama and Lee offered comparable House and Senate bills during the 2017 legislature session that was withdrawn after receiving an unfavorable committee report.

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