BAR HARBOR — Five years ago, Tsvetelina Yordanova-Bence came to Bar Harbor from Bulgaria for the summer. She worked at the Bluenose Inn as a housekeeper with a J-1 visa.
The J-1 is a State Department Summer Work Travel program for students. It has come under scrutiny as part of the Trump administration’s “Buy American, Hire American” effort. In an April 18 executive order, President Trump called for a review of the J-1 program.
That first summer here, Yordanova-Bence picked up a second job at C.J.’s Big Dipper ice cream parlor. In 2016, she married C.J.’s son and now lives here and continues to work serving ice cream.
“In my first year, my English was not great, “she said. But she credits what now sounds like almost flawless, unaccented English to talking with people. “I am trying to teach the new help [some of whom are from Bulgaria, Serbia and Macedonia, where strangers do not usually talk to one another] to talk to people.”
She also encourages the students to travel – something she did – to learn more about the country, people and culture. Yordanova-Bence described her experience on an F-1 visa as “amazing.” Students improve their English, interact with a wide range of Americans, learn more about U.S. culture and experience summer on MDI and in Acadia, where they hike, bike, kayak and sightsee alongside the tourists they serve.
According to State Department data for 2016, 238 summer workers on Mount Desert Island had J-1 visas. Of these, 150 worked in Bar Harbor, 30 in Northeast Harbor and 58 in Southwest Harbor.
These visas may be in jeopardy, and the impact on the tourist and service industries here will be “huge,” said Harborside Manager Eben Salvatore.
While there has been no official announcement that these visas will be curtailed, there is sufficient concern that 33 members of the House, including Bruce Poloquin, and 14 senators, including Susan Collins and Angus King, sent letters over the summer to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explaining that many small businesses could not survive without these workers. Last Friday, Collins met in Biddeford with members of the Maine Innkeepers Association.
Of the two most common classes of J-1 visa holders on MDI, one provides university students with an opportunity to spend four months in the United States, working for three months and travelling for one. Many of the J-1 workers on MDI work in local B&Bs, restaurants, shops, hotels, motels and whale watching companies.
The second class of J-1 visas provides 6-12 month internships. According to Starr Gibbons, human resources manager for Ocean Properties Ltd (OPL), the company currently has 35 culinary interns, all of whom rotate over a six-month period among OPL’s five Bar Harbor restaurants. For the second six months, these interns will work at OPL resorts in either Florida or Colorado ski resorts.
Lidija Povicas, a law student from Lithuania, and Nevardauskaite Barkauskas, a recent engineering graduate from Lithuania, are just finishing up their second summer working at the Holland Inn where they serve guests breakfast and do some housekeeping.
Both said they have experienced different cultures, met new and different people and improved their English. They shortly will travel to New York and the Bahamas before returning to Lithuania, where Povicas will pursue her studies and Barkauskas will work with an engineering company.
Evin Carson, who owns the inn, said that she has been sponsoring international students for about 15 years.
While she tries to hire local people first, it is extremely difficult to find local help, although she currently has local help in the kitchen. Sponsoring students on J-1 visas involves providing housing and helping them navigate a new culture. When Barkauskas became ill last summer, Carson visited him in the hospital and helped him navigate the billing process. She also helps them find recreational opportunities, like free excursions on whale watch boats or kayaking.
“I’ve never had a bad experience with these students,” said Carson, who assesses their English via emails and videos the applicants usually send. “The more they interact with guests, the more their English improves, and the bigger their tips are.”
How businesses here do business
J-1 and H-2B visas – visas issued to nonimmigrants – were the main topic of a meeting last Friday in Biddeford with Maine innkeepers and Sen. Susan Collins.
“At peak season, we [Ocean Properties Limited and Bar Harbor Whale Watch] employ 800 people in Bar Harbor, 200 of whom are on these visas,” said Eben Salvatore, general manager of the Harborside Hotel. “We can’t even come close to hiring that many local people for only six months. We compete with the labs, college and hospital that offer year-round employment. The people on F-1 and H-2B visas are an important part of how businesses in Bar Harbor can do business.”
While F-1 visas are issued to students, the H-2B visas allow a broader group of temporary nonagricultural workers to come to the United States. Many H-2B holders here are from Jamaica and have worked year after year on Mount Desert Island.
Representatives of the Maine Innkeepers Association have been lobbying since late February about the importance of these visas to Maine’s economy, said Salvatore. Many of the H-2B visas were not issued in spring as they normally are.
To compensate for the loss of Jamaican workers, Salvatore and others recruited from Puerto Rico and from among the Somali refugees who live in Lewiston, but these workers lack the experience and understanding that the Jamaicans and other longtime employees bring to their jobs, said Salvatore.
While those on these visas are provided housing, they purchase food and other necessities, eat in restaurants and pay for services.
At the meeting in Biddeford, Collins said there was strong bipartisan support for continuing these programs. She recognizes how critical these visas are for Maine’s economy and that, at least in Maine, these people are not depriving other Americans of jobs, a criticism levied by some against the visa programs.