An uncertain visa program squeezes summer employers
By Mike De Socio
In any given year, about one fifth of the summer staff at Enchanted Forest Water Safari in Old Forge is made up of international students. This year, there’s a chance that could be zero.
“We haven’t had anyone confirmed yet. Usually now we’re talking to them about summer and they’re making their flight arrangements,” said Katie Wojdyla, vice president and director of marketing for the water park.
Enchanted Forest typically relies heavily on international students to fill the gaps in its summer season when American students are still in school, Wojdyla said. But she’s now one of many employers in the Adirondacks who are left wondering where they’ll find workers this year.
International workers in the past would come to the Adirondacks through the J-1 student exchange program, which was suspended last year due to the Covid-19 outbreak. That suspension expired this spring, meaning the J-1 program can resume this summer. But it depends on Covid conditions in each country, and whether embassies and consulates are open to process visa applications.
“We really haven’t been given any concrete information,” Wojdyla said. It’s unclear if consulates will open and process applications in time for the summer season. Plus, the pandemic may dampen the desire for international travel and keep would-be summer workers at home.
How these variables shake out in the coming months will have big implications for the summer economy in the Adirondacks. The Water Safari alone is Herkimer County’s largest employer in the summer. In 2019, international student workers made up 1,300 summer employees in Lake Placid, Old Forge, Lake George, Bolton Landing, Diamond Point, Keene Valley and Warrensburg, according to the U.S. Department of State.
‘We need everybody that we can get’
The number of international students who come to work in the Adirondacks in a given summer doesn’t tell the full story. That’s because many of the jobs are part-time, and employees will often take on two or three roles at once — maybe working as a lifeguard by day and server by night.
Filling thousands of jobs in the region is critical to the success of the summer tourism season. Bookings are up across the Adirondacks again this year, as newly-vaccinated Americans are looking for vacation spots close to home. That’s putting pressure on the hospitality industry to staff up in an extremely tight labor market.
But international workers offer the region many other benefits, Mintzer said, beyond simply filling jobs. They also spend their wages at local shopping centers, and they offer an opportunity for learning across different ethnic, religious and educational backgrounds.
“They’re adding to our economic workforce,” Mintzer said, “but they’re more importantly adding to our cultural opportunities.”
So Mintzer is hoping the region will have better luck than last summer, when employers only had access to the handful of J-1 workers who were already in the country before the pandemic started.
“We need everybody that we can get to work any job that’s available,” she said.
Perks and solutions
While the pandemic may have shut off one valve of summer employees in the Adirondacks, it has opened up another.
Jamie Thomas, general manager of The Hedges on Blue Mountain Lake, said more American college students are now willing to spend their summers working hospitality because the typical New York City internships are still up in the air.
In a typical summer, The Hedges employs about 40 people, half of which are college-aged students. Thomas has historically relied on Romanian students through the J-1 program, especially for the late summer and fall season when Americans return to school.
This year, Thomas counts only five potential Romanian employees, and none have confirmed.
“That situation changes almost every day,” Thomas said.
He hopes their visa applications get sorted out by July, the busiest month at The Hedges. But this year, he’s also hired 10 American college-age students, and he’s reduced the on-site housing costs for employees to make the opportunity more attractive.
“We have good numbers of people, and quality people signed up to work with us,” Thomas said.
Wojdyla from the Water Safari is also banking on new perks to attract summer workers. They’re offering free housing on site for team members to live in Old Forge for the summer.
“We’re hoping that’s a big draw, it’s a bit unique,” she said. The company can’t afford to offer bonuses or other financial incentives.
“We can’t really compete with that, especially not having opened last year,” Wojdyla said.
Mintzer is working to help the Lake George community find new ways to attract local workers, too. A social media campaign aims to show Capital Region residents that moving to Lake George could be a good career move that lasts well beyond the summer season.
“We’re doing all of these things as a community, collaborating together for solutions,” she said.
An uncertain summer
Ultimately, all of these efforts are unlikely to replace the J-1 student workers completely. Mintzer is still working with sponsoring agencies and federal officials to speed up the visa process. And if pandemic conditions abroad move in the right direction, it could bode well for the Adirondacks.
“We do have some hope that we might be able to get some [J-1 workers],” Wojdyla said. But she’s also preparing for the possibility that they can’t. The water park might have to close rides if they don’t have enough staff to operate them.
“That 18 year-old demographic that we need at the end of the summer is really filled by the internationals,” Wojdyla said. Plus, with new Covid-19 guidelines, the resort will need more staff than a usual year — not less — to enforce health protocols.
The Hedges is also preparing for a busier-than-usual summer. Thomas expects the return of his regular visitors who skipped out last summer, plus a whole new group of customers who discovered The Hedges as a local getaway in 2020.
“A lot of people are looking forward to getting out of their homes,” Thomas said. The hotel opens on June 9th, and he feels confident about the team he’ll have on staff.
“We’re doing quite well at this point,” Thomas said.