Foreign students who once flocked to Alaska for summer jobs are scarce this season, exacerbating the state’s labor shortage and creating another complication for local businesses trying to get back on the job. rails as the pandemic ebbs.
The employees, who are part of the US State Department’s J-1 Summer Work Travel cultural exchange program, have traditionally worked at restaurants, hotels, and other businesses during Alaska’s busy summer tourist seasons.
Before the pandemic, they came to Alaska in disproportionate numbers compared to other states.
But last year, the program was virtually non-existent after President Donald Trump banned the J-1 and other visa programs during the pandemic.
And their numbers remain low this summer, as understaffed U.S. embassies and consulates process a backlog of visa applications, a State Department official said. Additionally, Anchorage employers say it’s difficult to find affordable housing for students.
More than 200 J-1 workers have arrived in Alaska so far this summer, more than last year. But that’s only a fraction of the 2,000 who arrived in 2019, according to State Department data.
The lack of international students is one of the main reasons the 49th State Brewing Co. in downtown Anchorage closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, co-owner David McCarthy said.
The restaurant employs around 20 of the workers this summer, around a quarter of their number in a normal year.
“It has a huge impact, not only on our business, but on many businesses,” said McCarthy.
The shortfall adds to the larger challenge that restaurants and other employers have had to find enough workers this season.
The restaurant employs and trains around 175 people. But it still needs around 80 employees to return to pre-pandemic staffing levels, McCarthy said.
Another issue with the pandemic: It has been difficult to find accommodation in Anchorage that students can afford, he said.
The Aviator Hotel Anchorage housed D-1 workers before the pandemic, but the city contracted the hotel to house homeless residents there as an overflow from the Sullivan Arena mass shelter. The hotel is also undergoing renovations, leaving no space for workers. Other landlords who have also rented apartments to summer workers have signed long-term tenants instead, amid uncertainty over tourism and the J-1 program earlier this year, McCarthy said.
49th State Brewing employs Thai and Jamaican workers this year. They prepare food, clean tables and do other important chores, McCarthy said.
They are paid the same as their counterparts in Alaska for the same work, he said. The starting wage ranges from Alaska’s minimum wage of $ 10.34 per hour to $ 18 per hour, he said.
On Tuesday, five young Thai women sliced vegetables and spread a crab mixture on bread, preparing food for the cooks who would arrive on Wednesday.
Baiya Thongruksanit, 23, a student in Bangkok, said she and a few other friends came to Alaska to earn money and experience a new country.
They had heard stories of Thai students struggling to get J-1 visas, she said. But they found a place in Anchorage that they could afford – six people in a three-bedroom unit – thanks to a landlord from Thailand.
Thongruksanit said she took a second job at Polar Bear Gifts to help save money. Despite the hard work, it’s fun, she says.
“It’s a new culture, and you can do so many different things,” she said.
Nationally, the number of J-1s fell to 5,000 last year, from more than 100,000 a year before the pandemic, a State Department official said in an email.
The State Department knows the delays create hardship for employers, and the official said the agency is trying to process visas as quickly as possible.
Critics of the program have focused on whether J-1 workers get a true cultural experience when they work so hard, and whether they are a source of cheap labor for jobs Americans could. fill. Student workers can also be burdened with costs, such as their flight to the United States and fees charged by placement agencies that connect workers to employers.
J-1 workers, in part because many work multiple jobs, are often a visible presence in Alaska in the summer, said Mouhcine Guettabi, an economist at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“They are part of what summer is in Alaska,” he said.
Mike Middleton, director of a restaurant group that includes Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse and Flattop Pizza and Pool, said corporate sponsors that typically connect Alaskan businesses to J-1 prospects have not called this summer.
He said he would normally have an 8-inch-high stack of applications from J-1 students who come to Humpy looking for their second job.
Only a few J-1 workers applied this year, and he hired one, from Jamaica.
“She works very hard,” he said.
He would hire several more this summer if he could. The restaurant is open daily but it could increase sales with more staff, he said.
Jay Green, owner of Polar Bear Gifts in downtown Anchorage, said he normally employs around 20 D-1 workers, or about half of his regular summer workforce.
This year, together with the sponsoring company, he only hired three J-1 workers from the Dominican Republic.
He also hired a few other people who took second jobs after another employer brought them to Alaska, including Thongruksanit.
Green said he could have brought more foreign workers into the state. But he also struggled to find affordable housing for students, he said.
To deal with its shortage of workers, the gift shop cut its morning and evening hours by four hours, he said.
It is always open 12 hours a day. Customers returned “instantly” in early May after pandemic restrictions eased and tourists started returning, he said.
Business is going well, but it could be better, he said.
“We would do better if we were more open and if we had more employees, and things were stocked and ready to go,” he said.