Across the Washington area last week, young workers from Europe arrived in droves, heading for jobs at community swimming pools. Lugging duffel bags, they filled out forms, picked up safety gear and chatted in a variety of Slavic languages, eager to plunge into a summer experience of new friends, skills and culture.
“Now I can meet many people and see America,” gushed Anzhala Scherbina, 21, a petite student from Ukraine whose family spent $3,000 so she could fly here and enter a U.S.-sponsored work-travel program. “My parents say this will be a very good experience,” she said with a giggle.
The Obama administration is going to great lengths to make sure Scherbina and about 100,000 other foreign student workers are not disappointed. Last summer, the popular program, aimed at creating good will abroad, was rocked by scandal when students working at a candy warehouse in Pennsylvania staged a protest, complaining of isolation and overwork.
On May 11, the State Department issued rules that ban foreign students from jobs that could be harmful, limited them to light, seasonal occupations that are not likely to displace U.S. workers and required closer scrutiny of their conditions.
But the new rules do not address a broader, more profound question that some immigration and labor experts have raised about many sectors of the economy. Today, more than 50 million Americans of traditional working age are not employed, and yet a growing number of domestic jobs — from hotel clerks to nurses to computer scientists — are being performed by foreign-born workers.
For college-age Americans, there is a high rate of unemployment among those from poor families and fierce competition among middle-class students to build résumés that show responsibility. So why, critics wonder, are fewer young Americans snapping up relatively easy summer jobs? In other words, why is Scherbina here?
“The glory isn’t there any more. A lot of young Americans just don’t want to be lifeguards,” said Douglas Winkler, whose Hyattsville company manages 225 pools in residential complexes and hotels. When his father started the firm in the 1950s, all the guards were local kids. Today, one-third of Winkler’s seasonal staff of 650 pool workers are foreign students, mostly from Eastern Europe.
“The international students are really grateful to be here and have a job, while American students have so many other activities and demands on their time now,” he said. “I truly wish we didn’t have to rely so much on international labor, but the bottom line is that we don’t have any choice.”
At the much larger High Sierra Pools in Arlington County, managers hired about 600 Americans and 900 foreign students for the summer. One reason for the lopsided numbers, they said, is the United States’ longer academic years and sports programs that cut into the summer, leaving the company scrambling to fill shifts.
“We have to staff pools from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and the Americans can’t commit to the entire season,” said Radac Kaczor, a manager at High Sierra who is from Poland. “For us to replace them with international workers requires a lot of effort. We have to find them housing and make sure they have good English and swimming skills. If we could fill our staff with 100 percent Americans, we would.”
Some immigration experts and companies that hire local pool guards are skeptical of such claims. They said that profit is the real issue and that foreign students are cheaper because employers get a tax break and are not required to pay Social Security or Medicaid benefits. Most foreigners are hired at job fairs in their native countries; recruiters offer them a package of terms and wages starting at the U.S. minimum of $7.25 an hour. They can’t negotiate or go “pool shopping,” as Winkler put it.
“From age 18 to age 65, there has been a massive deterioration in native employment,” said Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, a policy research firm in the District. “No one disputes this. What they dispute are the reasons why.”
He said that some recruiters lure contracts with U.S. firms by promising savings and that visitors who depend on employers for visas and housing are less likely to object to abuses.
Among the several thousand foreign students who flood the Washington region each summer, there have been few complaints. Pool company officials said the job is pleasant and lends itself to socializing, in keeping with the State Department’s cultural mission. Some guards are returning for their second or third summer, and they said the chance to mingle and bond with Americans is as much a motive as the income.
Robert Stamojkovski, 24, a student from Macedonia, just started his fourth season with High Sierra. At home, he is studying for a career in information security, and he said his U.S. sojourns have made him more worldly and connected.
“You have fun, you make friends and you keep in touch with Skype,” he said. “I think I’ll come back one more year. After I graduate, I will be working to have a better life, not to be a lifeguard.”
One family-owned pool management company, Crystal Aquatics in Chantilly, has made a commitment to hire only Americans. Company officials said that they sometimes confront underbidding by firms that hire foreign students but that they prefer Americans as a matter of principle.
“I know it’s a global marketplace now, but our kids should be able to compete on an even plane,” said Casey Ford, Crystal’s president. “The international guards are not subject to the same rules. If you crowd eight people into a one-bedroom apartment, you can save a lot of money. Companies should not be rewarded for bringing in outside labor when people here want to work.”
Ford said the firm has plenty of local applicants for 400 guard slots, including many repeats from previous summers. Eric Javage, 21, just graduated from George Mason University and is about to start his sixth summer at $10 per hour.
“I like the responsibility,” he said. “People listen to me. It’s nice to have the extra money, and it’s a huge résumébuilder.”
In addition to correcting abuses such as overpriced housing and unsavory work conditions for foreign students, the new rules provide safeguards for adult American workers so they will not be replaced by less-costly foreign students. This is a second reason the visitors are being barred from warehouses, factories or any company where U.S. workers are on strike.
“The new rules add some clear protections for both American workers and temporary guest workers,” said Jennifer Rosenbaum, a lawyer for the nonprofit National Guestworker Alliance in New Orleans. “These are complimentary issues. The students need to be placed in seasonal jobs that have a strong cultural component and not in permanent ones that could be done by Americans. This will definitely create more American jobs.”
Area pool managers said they had no objection to the new rules, except for initial scheduling glitches, because their jobs are not onerous and offer cultural interaction. Most foreign students in the Washington region work at recreational or tourist facilities; most jobs that are now off-limits — such as fish canneries and traveling fairs — are in other parts of the country.
Several sponsors who recruit and place foreign students were reluctant to discuss the new rules or past abuses. CETUSA, a California sponsor that recruited the protesting candy factory workers, has been barred from State Department programs. Officials at the Center for Cultural Interchange, a Chicago sponsor that places many lifeguards in the Washington region, said that they strongly endorsed the rule change but that it was too early to tell how it would affect them.
At High Sierra in Arlington last weekend, American and foreign students seemed unaware of the new rules or the concerns about abuse and unfair competition that spawned them. About 30 recruits grabbed free sodas and snacks during a break from a training video about how to rescue unconscious swimmers, avoid falling asleep in the sun and locate bodies in deep water.
“I like this job. I can be my own boss, stay in shape and get invited to barbecues,” said Peter Jones, 19, a student from Alexandria who is about to start his fourth season as a pool guard and hopes to become a dentist. “Once I got to rescue someone,” he added. “It made me feel very capable.”