This is the second installment of a two-part series on foreign workers in the Midcoast. Part 1 asked why employers choose to hire foreign workers. In part 2, we look at the differences between work and student visas.

Local employers, for the most part, prefer to hire foreign workers on student visas rather than more restrictive work visas that require employers to demonstrate they could not find U.S. workers and to pay the foreign workers the prevailing wages for the jobs performed.

Approximately 170 of the more than 220 foreign workers serving this season in Knox and Waldo counties are here on student visas.

Both student and work visa holders help fill seasonal labor needs, but the the two programs are fundamentally different. Work visas, both agricultural and non, are administered by the Department of Homeland Security, which jointly regulates the program with the Department of Labor. Student visas are administered by the Department of State as a cultural exchange program, which includes a work component to defray the students' travel, visa and program costs.

Though both visa types are used simultaneously by some employers, Nathan Arnold at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), the State Department agency that monitors sponsors placing foreign students with U.S. employers, said there currently are no reporting requirements for ECA to share exchange visitor program data with the Department of Labor. Nor does the Maine DOL receive information on how many students are working in Maine and where they are working, according to Julie Rabinowitz, communications director at Maine DOL.

Federal regulations describe the purpose of the student/work travel visa, the most common subcategory of student visas with a work component, as providing "foreign college and university students with opportunities to interact with U.S. citizens, experience U.S. culture while sharing their own cultures with Americans they meet, travel in the United States, and work in jobs that require minimal training and are seasonal or temporary in order to earn funds to help defray a portion of their expenses."

By contrast, the work visa program is intended to fill labor needs when no U.S. workers are available. Work visa regulations are designed to prevent adverse effects on wages and working conditions for local and foreign workers and have been updated this spring to strengthen worker protections and enhance local recruitment requirements. Employers must show they could not find enough willing and able local workers to do the work and, for non-agricultural visas, that their need is either intermittent, seasonal, one-time, or due to peak load, when applying for foreign labor certification to hire work visa holders.

These employers must pay at least the area's prevailing wage for the jobs performed as determined by the Department of Labor. Local prevailing wages for the current season were set at $11.26 per hour for farm work, $9.76 per hour for housekeeping, $11.86 for line cooking, $10.35 for food prep, and $9.30 for dining room attending.

The Maine Department of Labor helps employers applying for foreign labor certification find local workers and is responsible for verifying that applicants have met the recruitment requirements.

Rebeca Perez Martinez, Mexico

Rebeca is from Mexico City and has been a counselor at Camp Tanglewood for three years on student visas.

She has completed her classes toward a degree in graphic design, specializing in photography, and is working on a thesis project involving photographing ancient buildings in Mexico.

"When they are destroyed, they get lost forever and we don't know about them," she said. "Some are pretty cool."

One difference between Midcoast Maine and Mexico City, she said, is that people in Maine are friendlier because the communities are small.

"If someone you don't know says hi [in Mexico City], you'd freak out," she said.

Other differences she noted are that there is more diversity in things to do in Mexico City and businesses there stay open later. "You could go out for ice cream at 11 [p.m.] there if you want to," she said.

Though the visa fees and airfare are expensive for her because the value of the U.S. dollar is high in Mexico, Rebeca said it is worth it because Camp Tanglewood is one of her favorite places.

Her experiences at the camp inspired her to learn more about ecology. After she finishes college she plans to travel around Mexico and Canada and then hopes to return to the United States to pursue a degree in environmental studies.

Martin Zlatkov, Bulgaria

Martin graduated with a master's degree in graphic design. This summer he is working as a housekeeper at Schooner Bay Inn in Rockport on a student visa.  It is his first time in the States, but he says a lot is familiar to him from TV shows and video games.

He, too, found it surprising that here strangers say hi to each other. "If you did that in Bulgaria, people would think you were crazy," he said.

Martin chose Maine because he heard that working in a city like New York can be very stressful for international students.

Maine's natural environment is similar to Bulgaria's in some ways. "We have a lot of mountains," he said, "but here where the fresh breeze from the forest and the fresh breeze from ocean mix, it is amazing."

He enjoys sightseeing, taking pictures and meeting new friends in his spare time. He plans to use the money he earns to purchase supplies for his graphic design business, and hopes to get some clients in the United States so he can return.

Collin Brown, Jamaica

Collin works five to six months a year at Young's Lobster Pound in Belfast on a non-agricultural work visa. This is his sixth year at the restaurant.

Collin studied arts and business in Jamaica. When he is home he works as a cook in a restaurant.

He said the main difference between Jamaica and Maine is "the people, in terms of friendliness." When pressed, he elaborated that Jamaicans are the friendlier.

Collin does not plan to move here permanently. He has a family, and puts the money he earns at Young's toward his two children's education.

"It is not really a lot [of money]," he said, "but compared to back home, it is better."

Monique Donegan, Jamaica

Monique has been working at the Lobster Pound restaurant in Lincolnville for three years, six months per year, through the non-agricultural work visa program. Her uncle and friend from Jamaica are also working at the Lobster Pound, as is her mother, who is now in her seventh year at the restaurant.

Monique says she doesn't like the winter here, but summer is beautiful. In her time off she likes to go out with a lifelong friend from Belfast whose family has been vacationing in Jamaica since she was young.

Monique is using the money she earns at the Lobster Pound to save up for college. She plans to study hotel and tourism management.

Until now a Midcoast employer could put an ad in the Portland Press Herald for two days in December or January for a job starting in April or May, in addition to an ad online for 10 days during the same period, and no other local recruitment would be required before being approved to hire foreign workers. (The regulations requires ads be placed in a daily paper with wide circulation during a recruitment period that could begin 120 days before the work start date.)

But new non-agricultural work visa requirements taking effect next season stipulate that recruitment can start no earlier than 90 days and no later than 75 days (unless there is substantial cause) before the work start date, and employers must accept local referrals until 21 days before the start date. Also, employers must contact the bargaining representative if the job is unionized and post the job opportunity at the work site.

Other changes include the requirement that employers guarantee employment for three-fourths of each 12-week period within the certified work period. They will also be responsible for transportation costs to and from the visa holders' home countries, as the agricultural visa already requires. The agricultural work visa requires housing be provided, but this is still not a requirement for non-agricultural work visas.

John Gismondi, vice president of US Americans Inc., one of the agencies that place non-agricultural workers in Knox and Waldo counties, said he is not sure if the recent regulatory changes will lead to a decrease in foreign worker requests, but said the cost of transportation may lead employers to source more workers from nearby countries like Jamaica and Mexico rather than the Philippines or South Africa. Landscaping and construction companies may choose to pay the high transportation costs because they've had the same workers coming for years, he said.

"The Department of Labor is making it harder and harder and more expensive for employers so they'll hire more local workers, but if the workers aren't there, they can't," Gismondi said. "Without the program, they'll go under."

Despite heavy regulation, several employers prefer hiring workers with work visas.

White Oak Farms in Warren employs up to 16 agricultural visa holders making $11.26 per hour, according to their foreign labor certificate. (The farm owners declined to participate in this article.) Maine Monitor Advocate Jorge Acero, in charge of inspecting agricultural foreign workers' housing for Maine DOL, said the workers at White Oak Farms are primarily Jamaicans, and that over the years, some have stayed on to become permanent residents.

Nine area businesses employ 45 non-agricultural work visa holders.

Dick McLaughlin, co-owner of Lobster Pound in Lincolnville, said he was one of the first employers in the area to start using the program. He said with the student visa program, students have the option to switch employers, but work visa holders are only authorized to work for the employer that hired them. If it doesn't work out they have to go back to their country. Work visa holders can also stay longer — up to nine months for seasonal, peak-load and intermittent needs, and three years for one-time needs under the new regulations.

About his foreign employees, he said, "Some of them have been coming for years; it is their livelihood."

Michel Hetuin, owner of Chez Michel, said he finds the work visa program to be worth the expense. He employs four kitchen workers on non-agricultural work visas.

"The people don't mind to work 80 hours, and want to," he said. "I couldn't do it without them. I have found that Mexicans are the best workers for me.”

Gil Hartman, general manager of Inn at Ocean's Edge in Lincolnville, employs non-agricultural work visa holders from Jamaica. He said they are diligent workers who remain part of the team through the end of October. Some of his foreign employees have 19 years of experience.

"They are talented, hard workers who bring a lot of professionalism to the job," he said. "They show in-depth things like towel art to the less experienced staff.”

Student work visas encourage cultural exchange

Student visas, less expensive and less complicated for employers than work visas, are by far the most popular among area employers. Unlike in the work visa program, employers are not responsible for transportation, housing or visa fees, and usually do not have to pay sponsor fees.

Finding international student employees is simple, according to Camp Tanglewood Director Jessica Decke.

"It's like online shopping," she said. "When I am really desperate for staff, I can type in the skills I am looking for on a sponsor agency website. Then I can scroll through the list of profiles that come up, and just — click."

State Department-authorized sponsor agencies screen employers to ensure the students will be going to a safe situation and that the program is being used as intended. They also conduct recruitment, sometimes traveling to students' home countries to interview students; provide support for students while they are in the States; and work with employers to develop cultural exchange programming for the students' downtime.

Mark Overmann, deputy director of the Alliance for International and Cultural Exchange, which represents 90 student visa sponsor agencies, said the program is first and foremost intended for cultural exchange.

"Employers should be bringing in students not to fill a labor need but because they want to bring cultural exchange to their customers and to the area," he said. "— not that there can't also be a benefit to the business and to students in building their skills, work experience, and improving their English."

Nor is the program meant for students to earn a lot of money to take home. Kevin Morgan of sponsor agency GeoVisions said the purpose of the program is to travel and learn about life in the United States, and the work component allows the students to cover most if not all of their expenses: visa fees, airfare, housing costs and a participation fee to the sponsor,  while filling a seasonal need for local businesses. Many students in the program hold two jobs to save enough money for travel during their few weeks off before they have to return to school.

Overmann said the expense is worth it for the students, many of whom otherwise would not have the opportunity to participate in exchange programs. The State Department reiterated this point.

"Around 80 percent of the exchange visitors in programs with a work component are under the age of 30, and of these youth participants, a sizable percentage tell us they would not otherwise travel to the United States," said Arnold at the State Department. "The exchange visitor program provides an opportunity for the State Department to engage with a broad spectrum of individuals from approximately 200 countries and territories who wish to invest their own time and resources for a meaningful exchange experience in the United States."

Federal code requires sponsors to ensure participants are being paid at least the federal state or local minimum wage, or, if higher, "pay and benefits commensurate with those offered to their similarly situated U.S. counterparts."

However, no prevailing wage rates for the students' positions are specified, and it is up to the sponsor how they enforce those regulations.

Some sponsors charge fees to employers and some do not, and they all regulate wages differently, but for the most part students are placed in entry-level jobs, Overmann said.

Decke said that because of sponsor fees, foreign students end up being paid less than half the rate Americans are paid for the same work, and added she wished the pay were more fair. Numerous calls and emails to Portland-based sponsor agency CIEE, one of the sponsors placing workers at Tanglewood, received no response. Another CIEE client, Peter Kessen, co-director of Hidden Valley Camp in Freedom, said he does pay what he considers "very reasonable" sponsor fees that cover essentials such as air travel and insurance.

Overmann said the State Department has strengthened regulations over the last three to four years to ensure participants are safe and being well taken care of, and that the sponsor agencies screen employers to ensure no one is hiring students to "save money."

Still, many area employers prefer hiring international students because they find the prevailing wage requirement for work visas prohibitive for the positions needed. Many also find the cultural exchange aspect of the student visa program appealing and beneficial to themselves, their staff and their customers.

David Robichaud, owner of Cappy's Chowder House in Camden, said he applied for foreign labor certification but the process became so involved and the prevailing wage requirements would have been so expensive for the positions he needed that it wasn't worth it.

“I could understand if it was a kitchen manager position, but for general work, it is too expensive,” he said.

Instead, he hired 20 student workers this year, up from six last year. “I'd do it again in a heartbeat. The kids are hard workers, clean cut — they're just nice outgoing kids,” he said.

The flexibility of the visa allows a student to work for more than one employer. About half of his employees also work at Camden's Hannaford grocery store.

For cultural experiences Robichaud said he takes students to the festivals in the area, on sailing trips, to the lake, and shopping in Bangor and Portland. He also provides them bikes so they can get around and explore. Local staff also tend to take the students under their wings and show them around the area.

Christine Smith, co-owner of Mount Battie Inn in Lincolnville, said with the work visa program, workers are able to stay longer but it is “a lot of rigamarole because you have to prove a U.S. citizen can't do the job.”

“With the [non-agricultural visa] program, that's like saying I just need a pair of hands, but when you get students from abroad they are more than just workers,” she said. “They are thrilled to be here and we feed off their excitement.”

A student they employed last year from Thailand was 25 years old and had never seen snow. When he arrived in April, they took him to places where there was still snow on the ground, and they woke him up to see snow falling early one morning. He went outside and caught snowflakes on his tongue.

She said the students also come with a strong work ethic. “They feel a heavy responsibility and take their jobs very seriously. They have notes in their pockets to remember everything.”

For cultural experiences, the motel's co-owner Ed Acunto takes the students on trips and out sightseeing. They all went to Owls Head Transportation Museum recently and housekeeper Maksym Isakov of Ukraine won a ride in a 1933 Waco Biplane. Guests also enjoy interacting with the students, she said, and this makes Mount Battie Motel "more of a destination, rather than just a stop on the way to Bar Harbor."

Decke said she typically hires both work visa and student visa employees at Tanglewood. She has employed students and workers from such countries as Thailand, Southeast Asia and Finland over the years. She said she was not able to afford more than one international student this year because of sponsor fees, but would like to hire more because of the exposure it gives campers to other cultures.

"We bring in international staff because some of our kids are never going to go abroad and will never meet people from different cultures," Decke said. "It's great, because now we have international friends."

She said campers loved two Mexican former staff members who taught salsa dancing, and that her current Mexican employee, Becky, who worked at the camp for three years, went into the kitchen one day and made empanadas and mole.

"That was the number one food that summer," she said. "Who would imagine Mainer kids getting into that?"

Kittery does more for its guest workers

Recognizing that student visa-holders are filling a need for area farms and businesses and that they bring great enthusiasm and commitment to their work — and because their visas are not as regulated as work visas — some communities make a concerted effort to see that their needs are being met, and to provide more opportunities for meaningful interactions beyond the circle of their workplace.

One example of a community support system for student visa holders is The Seacost J1 Visa Coalition in Kittery (ourkittery.com/j1-coalition).

Kittery City Council Chairman Jeff Thomson said the town and nearby Portsmouth, N.H., have seen significant growth of foreign student workers in the past three to four years. About 100 student workers are in Kittery and 150 in Portsmouth, N.H., this summer.

Thomson got the idea to start the coalition when he and his wife noticed two students from China at the end of their driveway one evening a couple of years ago. The students had just arrived from Beijing, did not have a place to live and did not know how to get to Burger King where they were employed.

"Things have improved greatly the last couple of years, maybe because we're keeping a check on what is going on," he said. "Some of the students didn't have great housing or work situations before."

If students have any problems with wages — if their paycheck was short, or too much was taken out for employer-provided housing — or with working conditions,  they are supposed to call their sponsor or the State Department to address the issues.

"What we found a couple of years ago was that wasn't happening with the regularity it should have been," Thomson said. "Since we cast a light on that, employers are being a lot better."

The group also tries to enhance the cultural experience aspect of the program. It organizes a welcome dinner in late June where students can meet each other and members of the transportation committee, a group of about a dozen residents who are willing to give students rides to the grocery store, the movies or even to Boston or Portland on their days off.

The coalition is holding a summit, which is open to the public, Thursday, Nov. 5, at Kittery Community Center from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. involving town officials from Kittery and city officials from Portsmouth, N.H., employers, and student visa sponsor agencies. One agenda item is to address the shortage of housing available to student workers. The coalition will be exploring the possibility of developing dormitory-style housing as a joint project of the employers and sponsors, without the use of public funds.

Thomson said the coalition has had success, as can be seen in some students choosing to return to the area for a second year.

"Quite frankly that's the point, to let them see a side of America they don't hear about in their countries," he said. "It's a little bit of good PR."