This is the first of a two-part series on seasonal foreign workers in the Midcoast. In Part 1, we will explore why employers chose foreign workers, and next week in Part 2, we will explore why student visas are used far more often than work visas.

There are more than 200 foreign workers in Knox and Waldo counties this summer season, coming to the Midcoast from 23 different countries on three different types of visas: agricultural work visas, non-agricultural work visas and student visas, according to the U.S. Labor and  State departments.

Local employers, especially those in farm and hospitality businesses, say Midcoast workers will not take the jobs they offer, are far less reliable than foreign workers and do not perform as well on the job. Officials at the Maine Department of Labor say foreign workers are essential to supplement the labor pool in areas with high concentrations of seasonal jobs.

Our research has found that the vast majority of foreign workers are here on student visas, in part so employers can avoid the rules imposed on work visas, which include demonstrating that they could not find local U.S. workers, paying transportation and visa fees, and paying foreign employees the prevailing wages enjoyed by locals doing the same jobs. Student visas are intended to be cultural exchanges, which employers can fulfill by taking workers sporadically to museums, festivals or shopping. Students pay for the opportunity to come work in the States for cultural exchange, and may or may not cover their expenses with the wages they earn here.

The Career Center office, empty the afternoon of July 31,  had nearly 300 job orders, advertising 500 open positions located between Searsport and Waldoboro, posted on the bulletin board.

"This was like the trenches in World War I during the recession," said David Grima, team leader for Maine DOL's Bureau of Employment Services. "We were on the front line dealing with a huge unemployment problem. People who had just lost their jobs were literally pouring through the door."

Maksym Isakov, Ukraine

Maksym, "Max," Isakov is a second-year student in agriculture from the city of Vinnytsa, working as a housekeeper at Mount Battie Motel in Lincolnville.

He is also a competitive boxer, and has competed in a championship event in his region.

He said the current conflict in Ukraine did not affect his city, but it has touched his family.

"My mom's brother took part in this war — it's war, to be truth — also a lot of friends of my father also [have] taken part in this war," he said.

"I think Ukraine needs to be a part of Europe and not part of Russia. I know a lot about Russia because lot of my relatives are from there. Russia is like [a] dump… People don't have [a] future there."

His employer said he is one of the best housekeepers she's ever had, and his Romanian coworker said he works very fast. "You have to feel it," he says about the fast pace of the work. He has experience working in hotels in Ukraine.

Max said his dream is to work for Monsanto. (As part of a loan agreement with IMF, Ukraine allowed Monsanto to test GMO crops there.)

"I know that a lot of people hate this company," he said, "but in my country it is a very good job."

He will be going back to school in September.

Vanessa Kekahashi, Brazil

Vanessa comes from Bastos, San Paolo, and is working as an agriculture intern at School House Farm in Warren. Her university in Brazil, where she is finishing up a degree in agronomy, has a partnership with Ohio State University's international exchange program that places exchange students in agricultural or horticultural positions.

This is Vanessa's first time in the States and she says, "I like it here, it's pretty beautiful."

She is enjoying learning about different fruits and vegetables, like blueberries, that grow in the colder climate here.

Clothes and food are less expensive here, she says, but adds, "I don't know what else people do here for fun, there's more to do in Brazil."

Vanessa is working with another Brazilian and an Indonesian student at the farm.

Jay-ar Justiniano, Philippines

Jay-ar is from the province Nueva Ecija. This is his first time in the United States and he is one month into his job as a student intern at Maine-ly Poultry.

He is working with three other Filipinos, and says he likes the work. Jay-ar's job is making patties, grinding bones, and milking and taking care of the goats. He has experience doing similar work in the Philippines and has recently completed a degree in animal science.

Now, he says, that has completely reversed. "Employers are calling the office desperate for workers but there are not enough job-seekers to fill the positions available."

As high as 10 percent during the recession, the Knox county unemployment rate was down to 3.9 percent in June. In Waldo county, the unemployment rate was 5.2 percent in June.

But foreign workers were here throughout the recession, too, Grima said.

Julie Rabinowitz, director of communication and operations at Maine Department of Labor, said the main reason employers have trouble filling seasonal positions is Maine's low, dispersed population and high concentrations of seasonal jobs in certain areas of the state.

“Student work and non-agricultural work visas are very important programs in Maine," she said. "Because of the quantity of positions and time commitment needed in summer months, the labor pool needs to be supplemented in those areas.”

Employers cite difficulty in finding employees, low retention rates and low productivity among local workers as reasons they turn to hiring foreign workers.

Scott Perry, owner of Schooner Bay Inn said he has already gone through three different local workers this season. Some stopped showing up to work and did not call.

“I'd love to support the local economy," he said, "but it is hard to find workers that will commit.”

“People drift along to better-paying jobs. With student workers, they are committed. Where are they going to go? You have more control of the situation.”

Sheila Barnstein of Maine-ly Poultry in Warren said she and her husband, owner John Barnstein, have been in business 30 years and would like to hire local workers, but they don't stay on. Hiring foreign workers has been the only thing that works for them.

“Nobody will do the work; it's too hard,” she said at the Rockland Farmer's Market July 16. “Everybody wants to make a million dollars a year and have vacations and days off.”

Jim Freyenhagen of Freyenhagen's Family Farm said he was a member of MOFGA's apprenticeship program but hasn't had an apprentice in over a year.

"They're just not getting any applications up there," he said. "Young people, they don't want to work."

Daniel MacPhee at MOFGA confirmed that there are more openings on farms than there are apprentices to fill them.

David Robichaud at Cappy's Chowder House in Camden said he put in as many local newspaper ads as he does international student worker requests, but gets little to no local response.

“It really is just a temporary summer job and we depend on applicants,” he said.

If he hires college students, they have to leave mid-August and there are still two months of the season left. Few older workers apply because the job is seasonal and temporary.

He attributes the lack of interest among high school students to the affluence of families along the coast. Because parents are providing their children with money, young people feel no pressure to find or keep a summer job.

“Invariably at some point during their contracted time they decide they're going to take a two-week vacation, or mom and dad want to take them somewhere and they tell their kids they'll cover the money [their children would have earned]," he said. "Parents aren't backing the employers up.”

Christine Smith and Ed Acunto, owners of Mount Battie Inn, said they wanted to give back to the local economy by hiring local workers, but their first year open, in 2008, they went through 18 housekeepers. “It was horrible,” Smith said, “because we want to provide a certain level of service to our guests.”

Most people looking for housekeeping jobs are young unwed mothers, Smith said.

“These girls are in need of a job but circumstances just don't allow them to fulfill what is required for a job — first and foremost to show up every day. They don't have the resources if their car breaks down because they aren't making a lot of money, or they don't have dependable child care.”

Some of the employers' complaints highlight obstacles to employment for local workers — such as lack of public transportation and high childcare costs in the area — and the availability of more lucrative and more flexible options.

Penquis, a Rockland nonprofit, offers Head Start and Early Head Start child care for low-income families at rates of $140 to $178 per week. For full-time minimum-wage earners, putting an infant in daycare would take up 59 percent of their gross income. Even if they were paid the DOL's prevailing wage for housekeeping, child carefor an infant would consume 45 percent of their gross income.

David Sorenson, spokesman for DHHS, said Maine does offer generous childcare subsidies, "when the money is available," on a sliding scale, in which a family would need to pay only between 2 percent and 10 percent of their income as a copay. A 2012 report by National Women's Law Center showed Maine tied with New Mexico for first place in the nation for childcare subsidy eligibility limits as a percentage of the state’s median income (81 percent).

However, the report also states, "Maine, which had previously been serving eligible families who applied without placing them on waiting lists, started a waiting list in March 2012 and had 568 children on it as of July 2012."

Our requests for the number of children currently on the wait list received no response.

Sorensen also suggested a reason employers are having trouble finding workers is that for many, it is more lucrative not to work and collect state benefits instead. He said the LePage administration has made gains in reducing "the inter-generational cycle of dependency on welfare." By adding a work requirement for food stamps, he said, they were able to reduce the number of beneficiaries by 10,000.

Local housekeepers, with or without children, might decide to offer private cleaning services to individuals for higher hourly rates and more flexibility than hotel housekeeping jobs offer.

Daniel Richman, a Camden housekeeper advertising cleaning services for $20 to $25 an hour on the website Care.com said: “The job of cleaning, or 'flipping,' rooms is a bit tedious, and sometimes produces little in the form of tips. I truly believe, after working side by side with a group of Jamaicans on Cape Cod as a summer job years ago, that the foreigners have a different outlook on the job, are more grateful and understand what they'll do with the profit from the job.”

For work-visa holders, the wages offered — compared to what they can make in their own countries with lower costs of living — make minimum- to low-wage jobs more desirable than they are to local workers. In Jamaica, for example, the minimum wage is $1.19 per hour.

"Our workers make a significant amount of money compared with what they make at home," said Smith at Mount Battie Motel. "But their cost of living is completely different also. When you think of the comparison, they're eager to do the job."

Mount Battie housekeeper Maksym Isakov said he earned $5 per day last summer at a construction job in Ukraine, but that money there goes farther. For example, a haircut typically costs $1 in Ukraine.

Workers on student visas, however, tend not to take a lot of money home with them. They must pay airfare, visa fees and sponsor fees, in addition to any travel they do after their work assignment. They may or may not earn enough cover the expenses of the program, said Kevin Morgan of GeoVisions, a sponsor agency. The draw for international students is the experience of spending time in the States, and the opportunity to gain work skills and improve their English.

The value the workers see in the job might be one factor that increases their productivity. Their dependency on their employer for their visas might be another.

Jorge Acero, Maine Monitor Advocate for the state Department of Labor, said because the employer controls the work visas, "he has the workers at his beck and call." If somebody is sick too many times or is not working out, the employer has the option to send him back to his home country. For this reason, he said, and because workers want to be invited back to work the following year, most foreign workers show up on time and are very focused on the job.

Student visas are a little more flexible, and students may be able to find a different employer if their original placement is not working out for them.

Acero said employers do tend to treat their workers well because they, too, want them to come back each year.

The workers who come here should be appreciated, he said. "They are filling a void. The employer is stuck betwixt and between a lot of the time. They want to hire local people but there are just not enough to fulfill those needs in a reliable consistent way throughout the season.

"The [agricultural and non-agricultural visa holders] that do come do a lot with their money. They apply that money to their kids' education, school supplies and uniforms, even if they've only worked in agriculture their whole lives. They may use the money get a TV or a microwave for their home — things we take for granted — or they might build a brick house with a cement foundation instead of out of mud and wattle."

For more information on agricultural (H2A) and non-agricultural (H2B) work visas visit the foreign labor certification website at www.foreignlaborcert.doleta.gov and click on H2A or H2B. For more information on student work visas (J1) visit j1visa.state.gov.

Below is an interactive map of farms, camps, hotels and restaurants employing foreign workers. Click the markers for more information.