Foreign students fill tourism industry jobs in Grand Strand

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) From restaurant servers to lifeguard stands, soon thousands of foreign students will pack their bags and fill part-time jobs on the Grand Strand. Some say those students are taking away local workers' shot at extra income in this tough economy, and now the State Department is rolling out new protections for American workers.

Unemployed workers say they don't want to see foreigners getting the jobs they need in the summer months, but businesses say they can't survive without the help of young non-native workers.

Richie Spencer was laid off from a job in the medical field and he says for months he's been glued to the computer searching for work everywhere.

"I've sent out roughly 60 resumes and applications and no phone calls. No emails. I've been tethered to the laptop," said Spencer.

He says now he's almost considering any kind of work, even in the tourist industry, but those are the jobs 4,000 foreign workers from countries mainly in Eastern Europe are getting set to fill.

The students come to the United States as part of the State Department's Summer Work Travel program. It grants college students a J1 visa to stay in the U.S. for up to four months.

"They should choose from the locals, I mean what you have here. I know they say our unemployment rate is going down, but mine's not," said Spencer.

State Department officials say the Summer Work Travel program was created to give young foreigners a taste of American culture they could take back to their home countries. They work over their summer breaks and earn money, but the point of the program is to expose them to the American experience. Not to replace American workers.

"This is a supplemental aspect to our workforce and a seasonal based job that we need very much for these businesses to survive," said Stephen Greene, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Hospitality Association.

Greene says tourism-based businesses along the Grand Strand need the J1 students to fill the overwhelming summer needs.

Lack's Beach Service hires about 50 J1 students each year to cover the nine miles of beach it looks after. Without the J1s, Lack's owner says it'd be tough to fill the need.

"Those students can arrive after the second week of June and stay until the third week in October, where the U.S. kids get here generally after the first week in May and they have to be gone by the second week of August," said George Lack, owner of Lack's Beach Service.

Greene says even businesses having job fairs have a tough time getting locals to show up, proving the foreign students are a necessity.

"I had an example where 30 positions are open [and] four people show up for interviews. So, the J1 program is very important for our community and our workforce in the tourism industry," said Greene.

As the young workers make their trip to the Myrtle Beach area Spencer sees them as direct competition, but he says he won't give up.

"I've got to have hope. It's rough. I do have hope. I don't know where I'll end up, and like I say, I'm looking outside of the box. I'm looking at other things," he said.

Friday the State Department released a set of rules aimed at revamping portions of the Summer Work Travel program. It includes important provisions that would protect American workers.

Employers who have had layoffs within the last 120 days or where employees are on strike can no longer participate in the program.

Under the new rules employers also have to guarantee the jobs they're filling with J1 students are seasonal and temporary.

The average American employer can save 8 percent by hiring a J1 student because it doesn't have to pay important benefits like Medicare, Social Security and unemployment taxes.

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