WISCONSIN DELLS — Osman Mehmeti, a college student from Kosovo, traveled more than 5,000 miles and paid $3,000 in fees and airfare to work at Chula Vista Resort in Wisconsin Dells, which bills itself as “The Waterpark Capital of the World.”
Mehmeti was hired by the hotel and water park in 2009, joining an estimated 2,000 foreign students who use a federal work-travel exchange program to help keep one of Wisconsin’s top tourism destinations running. The program has become a crucial source of seasonal labor for tourism areas around the country and in Wisconsin, including the Dells and Door County.
“Always in the beginning they were saying you are working good,” Mehmeti, 23, said in an interview.
But, Mehmeti said, he was among a group of students fired in August 2009 before the scheduled end of their jobs at Chula Vista. Other foreign student workers in the Dells say they’ve had to contend with substandard housing conditions. And one was killed this summer in a bicycle accident that officials say illustrates dangerous transportation problems for student workers in the Dells.
A two-month investigation by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found that while many foreign students have positive experiences in Wisconsin Dells, some encounter economic, housing and transportation safety problems while working under the federal work-travel program overseen by the U.S. Department of State.
Interviews with business owners, federal officials, sponsor agencies, overseas and local recruiters, former participants and 24 current student workers in the federal program show that problems in the Dells include:
— Some students arrive from abroad to find their job offers have been canceled, their work hours are fewer than promised, or they are let go when business slows down.
— Federal regulations don’t cover employers or recruiting agencies, leaving students with little recourse if they feel they’ve been mistreated.
— While many businesses provide reasonable living arrangements, a high demand for housing leaves other students living in substandard conditions. Since 2008, two Dells-area motels that had housed students have been closed because of health and safety violations.
— A lack of public transportation means some young workers face dangerous bicycle rides on heavily congested roads. In July, a Russian student was killed while riding along Wisconsin Dells Parkway. Nineteen of the 21 bicycle-vehicle crashes reported in Wisconsin Dells and Lake Delton since 2008 involved international students, police reports indicate.
In 2009, 99,672 international students came to the United States on the work-travel exchange program, down 35 percent from 152,958 the year before.
The decrease followed a call by the Department of State for work-travel sponsors to voluntarily reduce the number of participants in light of the national economic downturn, according to an agency spokesperson.
For many students, the gamble of working in America pays off. They improve their English, gain work experience and earn money to pay off the program cost, travel to places like the Grand Canyon or pay for their college education back home.
Some also overstay their visas; one Dells motel manager who has worked with many work-travel students believes at least 10 percent don’t return as scheduled to their native countries.
Others, including Mehmeti, leave disappointed and with little of the goodwill that the federal program is supposed to engender.
Mehmeti said he was fired by Chula Vista last August along with 12 other foreign student employees. He said managers complained they weren’t performing housekeeping work quickly or carefully enough. But he believes it was because of slow business.
A second student employee, Elitsa Hristova, from Bulgaria, said she was among those who were fired.
Pat Finnegan, general manager of Chula Vista, said he doesn’t recall any such incident from last summer. He said the resort would not have terminated student workers because business was slow.
“Simply firing someone because we don’t have hours is not how we do business,” Finnegan said, adding, “Even at the slowest time of year, we’re still looking for people.”
But GeoVisions, the New Hampshire sponsor company that arranged for Mehmeti to work at Chula Vista, isn’t placing any students at the resort this year because of several “things” that happened there in 2009, chief operating officer Jim Miller said. He declined to provide details.
“My dream was to come here and see the U.S.A. and improve my language and to make some money,” said Mehmeti, whose journey began with an advertisement he saw at his university back in Kosovo. “But when I came to the U.S.A., everything was terrible in Chula Vista.”
Some local residents say there should be someone to stick up for the temporary workers. The Rev. Jay Heesch, pastor of the Pine Valley Church in Wisconsin Dells, often invites students for meals and other activities. He hears complaints about work and living conditions.
“They need an advocate, and I am beginning to lose my patience as summer after summer they get treated like second-class citizens,” Heesch wrote in an e-mail.
Foreign workers fill labor shortage
The Dells, a conglomeration of resorts, water parks and other attractions, is one of Wisconsin’s top tourist destinations. It draws 3 million visitors who spend an estimated $1 billion a year.
The local tourism industry is fueled by the equivalent of 23,500 full-time jobs — even though the year-round population of Wisconsin Dells and adjacent Lake Delton is about 5,500.
A significant portion of that gap is filled each year by thousands of foreign student workers who come to the Dells to clean hotel rooms, operate amusement rides and wait tables.
No one is sure how many Dells workers are work-travel students, since no private or government agency tracks the number of them in the area.
Lake Delton Village Board member Tom Diehl, who owns properties including the Tommy Bartlett Water-Ski Show on Lake Delton, estimated there are about 2,000 work-travel students this year among the thousands of summer workers, about the same as last year.
Participants come to the United States on J-1 exchange visitor visas, as do nannies, visiting scholars and others. The program was established in 1961 to increase understanding between the people of the United States and other countries through educational and cultural exchanges.
Of the 24 current participants from 14 countries interviewed for this article, 10 said they were having a positive experience. An additional four said their experience is positive overall, but they have some complaints.
Claudiu Aionesei, a former work-travel student from Romania who has a permanent job at the Kalahari Resort Convention Center, said he has “heard more positive opinions than negative ones” from students about the program. He said students who were allowed to work plenty of hours tended to be content.
Ten students interviewed for this article said their experience has been negative in the Dells.
The students’ grievances included a lack of communication with their physically distant sponsors, poor housing conditions, false or incomplete claims made by work-travel recruiters abroad and poor or deceitful treatment at the hands of employers.
It’s not clear who’s to blame. Some work-travel participants and business owners feel international students arrive with unrealistic expectations about how much they will earn or the type of housing they will have.
Labor gap grows over decade
The Wisconsin Dells tourism industry began to expand in the early 1990s as new resorts including the Wilderness, Great Wolf and Kalahari were built and existing properties such as Mt. Olympus Water & Theme Park and Noah’s Ark Waterpark expanded. The demand for labor came to far exceed the supply of willing workers.
International students with J-1 visas now form an integral part of the Dells labor force, according to large employers in the area. Diehl, for example, has been bringing in work-travel students from Finland for 11 years and currently employs 38 Finns, one student from Ecuador and one from Turkey among his 150 summer workers.
Although Diehl had more Americans applying for positions this year because of the recession, it’s still not enough to meet his employment needs, he said.
“The Dells could not survive without J-1 kids,” Diehl said.
Part of the demand for international students stems from the fact that many young Americans who in the past filled seasonal jobs are no longer willing to move to south-central Wisconsin to perform onerous, low-wage work such as housekeeping, said Katherine Frankov, a local motel manager who has worked with many J-1 students.
By contrast, “J-1’s are willing to do anything and everything,” she said.
Several large employers were reluctant to discuss their employment of work-travel students.
Of the eight largest businesses that belong to the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau, a representative of Mt. Olympus declined to say how many work-travel students the company employs or be interviewed for this article. Management at the Great Wolf Lodge, Ho-Chunk Casino and Hotel and Kalahari didn’t return several phone calls.
Those that did respond reported employing about 700 international students who make up varying fractions of their workforces: 6 percent at Original Wisconsin Ducks and Dells Boat Tours, 18 percent at Chula Vista Resort, about 23 percent at Wilderness Resort and 33 percent at Noah’s Ark.
Traveling across the world to work
With several steps and middlemen along the way, coming to work in the United States on a J-1 visa can be fraught with difficulties.
The road to work-travel can start with an employer seeking student workers, a student job-searching from abroad or an agency soliciting job offers and recruiting participants.
“It’s hard to generalize because the program can work in so many different ways,” Department of State spokeswoman Laura Tischler said.
In many cases, a foreign recruiting agency — which may or may not be affiliated with a U.S.-approved sponsor organization — advertises work-travel opportunities and helps students apply, for a fee.
Eventually, each student must apply with a sponsor organization designated by the Department of State. The sponsor then issues a form confirming the student has enough money to live in the United States. Students bring that form to a U.S. consulate or embassy to get their visas.
Counting fees from the sponsor company, a foreign recruiting agency and the visa process, as well as insurance coverage and airfare to the United States, most students pay between $2,500 and $4,500 to come to Wisconsin to work.
Some jobs missing on arrival
Federal regulations require sponsor organizations to place at least 50 percent of their participants in jobs. But employers aren’t obligated to hire any student who signs a job offer, leaving some stranded with no job upon their arrival.
That’s what Emil Aghayev, a student from Azerbaijan who thought he was slated to work at Wilderness Resort, said happened to him.
When Aghayev arrived at the resort June 14, he was told his offer to earn $7.50 an hour as a lifeguard starting June 18 had been canceled, he said.
Wilderness spokeswoman Heidi Fendos said Aghayev was denied employment because the resort had issued a job offer to “Emil Guliyev,” and that “Guliyev” had been whited out on the job offer, and “Aghayev” written in.
Aghayev’s recruiting agency in Azerbaijan, Delta Education, offered a conflicting version of events. A Delta spokesman said Aghayev forgot to bring the job offer document with him from Azerbaijan. According to the company, it e-mailed Aghayev another copy June 30 and helped him try to find another job in the Dells when that didn’t work.
But Aghayev contended he never heard back from Delta Education after he told them the job at Wilderness had been cancelled.
Regardless, Aghayev found himself halfway across the world with no job, unable to pay back the $3,000 in fees and airfare his family had lent him.
“I am angry because I have paid so much money,” he said. “My father and my mother need me; I must earn money, and I didn’t get anything.”
After weeks spent searching unsuccessfully for a job, Aghayev returned to Azerbaijan in mid-July, according to a receptionist at the motel where he had lived. Attempts in August to reach Agheyev to further discuss his job quest were unsuccessful.
Jobs sometimes hard to find
Other students arrive without an offer and must begin job hunting, often hampered by poor English skills and limited knowledge of the United States.
The federal rules require sponsors to “undertake reasonable efforts to secure suitable employment” for those who haven’t found a job after a week of searching.
Employment for such students is hard to find, said Adam Muller, a former Dells motel owner who now runs International Employment Resources, the only Dells-based agency that finds jobs and housing for work-travel students. He said students should be required to sign a form warning they may not make extra money or even be employed once they get to the United States.
Because of errors in immigration databases, students also sometimes face delays of up to three months in getting Social Security numbers to work in the United States, said Lois Magee of the nonprofit immigrant rights organization the American Immigration Council. Magee has years of experience working with J-1 students at both the council and the YMCA.
“If you’ve got a good Romanian last name, it is likely that the (customs) agent didn’t enter it in correctly,” Magee said. “In my experience, roughly 50 percent of the people who come into the U.S. do not have their information correctly entered.”
Too few hours
The biggest problem mentioned by students is fewer work hours than expected.
No minimum or maximum number of hours is established in federal regulations, although many sponsors include a spot on their documentation for employers to indicate hours per week. Six of the students interviewed, however, said they were receiving fewer hours than stated in their job offers.
Diehl said he has seen a stream of international students apply for second jobs at his properties this summer.
“They are not getting the hours they thought they were going to get,” he said.
Gizem Akarsu, 24, from Turkey, said she was told she would work 40 hours a week at Wilderness, but only gets 20 hours a week, which isn’t enough to cover her living costs.
Fendos, the Wilderness spokeswoman, said the number of hours stipulated in the job offer is an average that may fluctuate, adding that the resort will work with any student who feels he isn’t getting the correct number of hours.
Gabriela Martinez, Stephanie Russo and Viviana Oñate, friends from Ecuador who work at the Polynesian water park and resort, said their job offers stated they would work 30 hours a week, but they’ve been working less than that. The general manager of the Polynesian declined to be interviewed for this article.
“We don’t get anything we were supposed to,” Russo wrote in a follow-up e-mail. “I think this trip is not being what I planned.”
Under the J-1 visa rules, employers aren’t regulated by the Department of State.
“The only real incentive in place for employers to treat people fairly is they don’t want to get a bad reputation in the host country,” said Patrick Hickey, director of the Workers’ Rights Center of Madison, an advocacy group seeking to resolve problems in the workplace.
Diehl agreed, saying, “The success or future of an international program depends on word of mouth.”
‘Sweet words’ hide true cost of program
Recruiting agencies located in students’ home countries also aren’t subject to state department oversight. Students say recruiters sometimes fan unrealistic expectations.
“They told us we were going to win a lot of money and a lot of hours,” Russo said of Ordex International, the Ecuador-based recruiting agency that placed her and her friends.
Teresa Rivera, the director of Ordex, said the agency helps students create a budget of likely expenses and expected income based on their job offers but doesn’t guarantee the students will earn enough to pay off the cost of the program.
Yevgenii Moiseyev, 19, from Russia, said in an interview in Russian that the recruiting agency he worked with in St. Petersburg exaggerated earning potential with “sweet words” to attract students.
“They play on naivete, and that’s the way they make money,” said Moiseyev, who works 25 to 30 hours a week at the Park Motel and wants a second job to help pay off $2,600 in airfare and program fees.
“The first job only covers coming here, (program) fees and room and board,” said Russian student Elizaveta Chernousova, 21, who works full-time as a housekeeper at the local Best Western Ambassador Inn. With a second job, you can travel, she said.
But many students “need to work two jobs just to make ends meet,” said Frankov, the motel manager, adding, “That’s not even talking about saving money.”