Waves Oceanfront Hotel in Old Orchard Beach is a staple of the community. Open year-round, its engines really rev up during the summer, when the year-round population of 8,000 balloons to over 100,000 and the normally sleepy town becomes a destination for tourists from around the world. Mainer Ken Lafayette, longtime owner of Lafayette Hotels, trains for these summer months like a marathon runner — using the off season to put in place what is necessary to make it across that demanding summer finish line.

Among Ken’s top priorities are his employees. Finding enough temporary workers to fill the extensive needs of his hotel operations is tricky. The local high school graduated 52 students in 2017. Despite a relationship with the Southern Maine Community College culinary program, he can usually recruit only three or four local candidates per year – hardly enough to sustain him through the summer marathon ahead.

That’s why for the past 10 years, Ken has benefited from a U.S. Department of State cultural exchange program. The J-1 student visa program — which is made up of five distinct programs, including summer work-travel, camp counselor, intern and trainee, and au pair programs — has brought students from overseas to the U.S. to learn English, study and get exposure to American culture for over six decades. These privately funded programs build lasting alliances with the world’s business, government and academic leaders of tomorrow, at no cost to the U.S. taxpayer.

In peak seasons, Maine has thousands of temporary jobs to fill statewide. These include everything from wait staff at restaurants to tour guides, camp counselors and lifeguards — you name it. Despite aggressive efforts to fill these jobs with local workers, there just aren’t enough to meet the need. Combine that with the fact that many Maine college students are at school during the demanding “shoulder seasons” of late spring and fall, as well as a persistent low unemployment rate, there is an undeniable need to go beyond the state’s and even the country’s available pool of workers.

Without enough employees to meet its seasonal demands, businesses like Waves Oceanfront Hotel would have to shut down portions of their operations and delay or defer capital expenditures — all of which support the ability to grow and hire more permanent American workers.

Camps, in particular, greatly benefit from the participation of J-1 students. As an integral part of the cultural fabric and heritage of Maine, we boast some of the most exceptional experiences for children and young adults. As integral as the camp experience is to Maine, the presence of international counselors at our camps is paramount to their success. Camps all across the country have been participating in cultural exchanges since the program’s inception. This brings an element that campers cannot find in their daily lives — one in which different cultures and languages are shared and celebrated.


Maine communities, campers and staff members benefit from the cultural exchange as much as, if not more so, than the J-1 counselors. These friendships and the corresponding camaraderie lasts lifetimes and leads to greater global understanding and increased awareness. Living, eating, working and playing together in the great Maine outdoors provides the perfect backdrop for exchanging ideas. For this exchange of thought and culture to happen, however, looking beyond “Buy American, Hire American” is critical if we truly want to help future generations become more global in thought while also supporting the local economy.

While J-1 counselors’ absence would undermine the quality of these programs, it would also jeopardize the ability to operate. According to industry estimates, some 20 to 25 percent of counselors at overnight camps in Maine are here on the J-1 program. Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicate that it would be difficult or impossible for camps to replace these staff with Americans. But it would also undercut the spirit that is inherent in camps — one of cultural diversity and exploration that make a camper’s time there all the more meaningful.

And the feelings are mutual. A recent report commissioned by the Alliance for International Exchange found that 76 percent of summer work travel program participants have a higher overall regard for the United States after the program. With the global favorability rating of the United States hovering below 50 percent, keeping already-successful cultural exchange programs thriving seems like a no-brainer.

Given all that we know about the J-1 participants’ role in the state, we implore the Maine congressional delegation to take action to protect the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program. The future success of our seasonal businesses depends on it.

Kenneth Lafayette is owner and general manager of South Portland-based Lafayette Hotels, and Jeff Gleason is director of the YMCA Camp of Maine in Winthrop.

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