Shortage of summer camp counselors linked to COVID delays of US J1 visa

In England, Kishon Roberts spends his days checking Twitter for policy updates and emailing the US Embassy in London to find out the status of a visa application which is key to his work as a camp counselor this summer in the United States.

Two hours north of New York City, Roberts’ future workplace, Camp Pontiac, is preparing to open on June 26.

It’s unclear if 18-year-old Roberts will get there in time. And some camp leaders fear they will not be able to offer a full range of youth programs due to a shortage of seasonal foreign staff this year.

U.S. summer camps face the same staffing crisis that plagues other employers looking for low-wage workers, but with a lingering pandemic twist. Many camps depend on foreign workers who come with temporary cultural exchange visas. Due to processing delays and a COVID-19 related travel ban in some countries, these workers are not coming.

Staffing issues complicate what would otherwise be a booming year for summer camps. With the pandemic on the wane in the United States, families are eager to send their children back to in-person opportunities – and many have the money to do so, after a year of savings on activities.

New federal funds are also in the works to help send more children to summer learning experiences. And parents are looking for a break after 15 months with their children.

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The advisers crisis has led at least two camps to cancel operations this summer.

“We’re going to see more camps that can’t open or need to reduce capacity,” said Scott Brody, manager of Kenwood and Evergreen Camps in New Hampshire. Brody is missing around 20 camp counselors due to the J-1 visa backlog. And he still has two dozen former advisers who aren’t coming back this year because they have to make up for missed homework during the pandemic.

Camp directors have urged President Joe Biden’s administration to speed up visa processing, Brody said.

“There are normally 12,000 to 13,000 camp counselors who come from the UK,” Brody said. “This year, there have only been around 5,000 requests, and even those have yet to be processed.

“If the State Department freed these 5,000 people, it would make a big difference.”

Delay in processing D-1 visas

A major issue is the in-person appearance at a United States Embassy, ​​required to obtain the J-1 visa. Embassies in some countries have limited hours or are always closed due to the virus.

Then there is the US travel ban for most people from 33 countries, including the UK. Exceptions exist for people such as spouses, journalists, academics and others whose travel is deemed to be in the national interest.

Paul O’Mahony of Galway, Ireland tried to fight a “national interest” exception because he typically works in summer camps for children with chronic illnesses in the United States or Ireland. So far he has been unlucky. The U.S. Embassy in Ireland has yet to open for J-1 services, said O’Mahony, 29.

That means her chances of making it on time for her planned summer job at Camp Korey in Mount Vernon, Wash. – a camp for children with serious health problems – appear slim.

“I do it for the kids and love the job,” O’Mahony said. “If that doesn’t happen to me, I will wait another 12 months before I can work at summer camp again.”

Camp Korey has two other future counselors, a lifeguard and a member of the management team, in the same visa limbo, said Matthew Cook, the camp’s program director. The camp still plans to open in mid-June without them, but campers and families would be best served with the level of expertise these workers have.

“It was very difficult,” Cook said.

Over 25,000 camp counselors are foreign workers

Normally, the J-1 cultural exchange visa program, now called BridgeUSA, brings about 25,160 counselors to US summer camps. Last year, due to restrictions related to the pandemic, only about 220 workers on exchange visas participated in the camp counselor program, according to the US State Department.

The State Department couldn’t say how many J-1 visa advisers will be able to come this summer. However, the Ministry waived the personal appearance requirement for certain J-1 candidates.

The lockdowns began last summer, when the administration of then-President Donald Trump temporarily suspended temporary visas for foreign workers, a move the former president said was aimed at protecting American jobs during the pandemic. . The order ended on March 31, but the process has been slow to restart for foreign seasonal workers. In a normal year, these workers held positions in camps and tourist hot spots such as theWisconsin Dells, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Late last week, the federal government announced it would issue 22,000 additional foreign worker visas in a different category to help fill US summer jobs in tourism and agriculture. About 33,000 H-2B visas had already been issued for the second half of this year, and all had been requested.

The decision on the H-2B visa front came after pressure from U.S. lawmakers on the East Coast, who were responding to calls for help from small businesses that couldn’t find enough seasonal workers.

“I have spoken with several Cabinet and White House secretaries at this point, who all recognize the challenge and are working hard to resolve the J-1 visa backlog,” said Senator Jean Shaheen, DN.H., in a press release. declaration.

“The J-1 visa program is essential for filling seasonal jobs in New Hampshire, such as summer camps and rescue.”

Other obstacles for summer camp

The latest labor shortage comes on top of the chaotic restart of many U.S. summer camps.

Camp directors are still trying to sort out advice from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to operate this summer. The agency’s April 24 advice asks campers and staff to wear masks at all times, even outdoors, and to physically distance themselves.

Then, on May 14, the CDC said fully vaccinated people did not need to wear masks or physically distance themselves except when required by other state or local ordinances.

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There are also pressures on camps and summer programs to serve more children whose social and emotional growth has been halted during the pandemic.

And there is more federal money available over the next three years to help, if schools want to partner with private day camps or overnight camps. In total, 1% of the $ 123 billion earmarked to help K-12 schools recover from the pandemic is to be spent on summer enrichment programs.

“We know we need to help the kids this summer, more than in any summer we’ll ever remember,” said Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association, which represents the 15 or so 000 camps serving approximately 26 million children in a normal American summer.

“Kids need to regain some of these unexplained social and emotional skills, friendship and communication skills. We need to help them rebuild some confidence.

Some camps close due to labor shortage

A residential summer camp for adults with disabilities in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania has announced that it will remain closed this summer because it could not guarantee enough staff for safe operations. Camp Jaycee in Effort, Pa. Typically occupies 70% of its 100 positions with foreign workers on J-1 visas.

“We could do whatever was recommended by the CDC to successfully and safely run a summer camp, but we couldn’t find the staff,” said Maureen Brennan, director of Camp Jaycee.

In New Jersey, Elks Camp Moore, which serves children and adults with disabilities, also said it couldn’t open this summer, largely because it couldn’t get its usual number of foreign counselors.

Back in Leicester, England, Kishon Roberts is still hoping she can get permission to work at Camp Pontiac in New York State. But the earliest in-person meeting she could get at the U.S. Embassy in London is in September, she said.

By then, Camp Pontiac will be over for the summer and Roberts will have to resume his university studies.

Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or erin.richards@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @emrichards.


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