The beach is big business. The roughly 3.5 million trips per year to Delaware’s Rehoboth Beach generate around $630 million for the local economy according to Southern Delaware Tourism, a travel agency in nearby Georgetown, Del. And as the popular summer destination swells with D.C.-area beachgoers, so too does it fill up with international students in the U.S. on a J-1 visa.
Over the weekend, Fusion spoke to some of the students who fry your fries, run your ring toss, swirl your soft serve, and secure you a beachside table. They come from Bulgaria, Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and Moldova, among other places, through a State Department program that “offers exchange participants a hands-on experience to learn about U.S. society and culture while sharing their own culture and perspectives with Americans.”
“It started with the Irish 15 years ago,” said Staci, who works at her family restaurant, Gus & Gus Place—a beloved Rehoboth greasy spoon that’s been serving fried chicken and French fries on the boardwalk since 1956.
In fact, Ireland still sends more J-1 visa participants than any other country in the world. Nearly 275,000 students come to the United States on a J-1 visa every year, and, over the past 50 years, more than 150,000 of those participants have come from Ireland.
Rehoboth, though, has long been the province of students coming from Eastern Europe. Most of the J-1 workers Fusion spoke to learned of the program—and Rehoboth, itself—through word of mouth. A friend here, a girlfriend there, their web of contacts brought them to the beach.
Vasilena Mitrova, a marketing student from Sofia, Bulgaria, is in the middle of her second Rehoboth summer on a J-1 visa. She found work at the same two places she worked in 2015: Gus & Gus and Candy Kitchen, a chain that has multiple locations in beach towns across Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.
“I have no idea, actually,” Mitrova said when asked about how many hours a week she works. “I stopped counting. I start [at] 11 and work until 10 or 11. Probably 12 hours a day. I have one or two days off per week."
“The first time [I procured a visa, it] was so easy. This year was the same. It was easy. They asked me how much I made last year, how I was, did I travel. It was nothing special. I have no idea how many, but all the Bulgarians are here. I’m living with four Bulgarians from Sofia.”
Velian Yordanov, a student from Varna, Bulgaria, is spending his summer behind the counter of Dolle’s Salt Water Taffy, the cursive orange sign for which has dominated the Rehoboth boardwalk since 1927.
“Yeah,” Yordanov admits, “I’m also from Bulgaria. It’s my first time in the United States.” His friend came to Rehoboth on a J-1 visa last summer, and Yordanov joined him this year. He likes the beach town and working at Dolle’s. “The managers and the people here are so friendly.”
“Here, I work 35 hours. It’s enough for me. Most of the people [on J-1 visas] work at two places.” He also lives with a group of students here on J-1 visas. “In my apartment, there are twelve people and three bedrooms. Everywhere here, it’s like that.”
At Funland, Rehoboth’s amusement park and arcade, one employee estimated that breakdown of American-born versus J-1 visa seasonal workers is 50/50. Darius Sebeckis, a student from Vilnius, Lithuania, works the Super Goblet Toss there. He’s in Rehoboth, like Yordanov, because of another person—in his case, his girlfriend, Karolina, who works across the arcade. She and Sebeckis share a room in a group house. 14 other people live there.
“I’m very tired sometimes,” Moldovan student Livia Lupu admits.
Like many of the other students Fusion spoke to, Lupu lives in a crowded apartment: 10 people in four bedrooms, although she says that the rooms are big. She works as a hostess at At Obie’s By the Sea, a restaurant on the boardwalk, and is a student at the Grigore T. Popa University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Iași, Romania. Her shifts are 10-12 hours long, and she gets one day off a week plus an additional evening or morning. She’s paid $8.25, Delaware’s minimum wage, but her employers don’t have to put in for social security.
“A lot of my friends had done it,” Lupu said of her decision to come to Rehoboth for the summer. One friend in particular helped her make the arrangements. There are two ways of getting a J-1 visa, she told Fusion: “Either get a job and a place to stay from an agency, or do it yourself. I did it myself. It's cheaper.” She had to secure her own contract. Some businesses told her flat-out that they don’t hire J-1s.
Staci from Gus & Gus also remarked on the shift towards agencies arranging J-1 visa participants' summer plans. “We didn’t used to have to go through companies [to arrange jobs with J-1 visa students]," she said. “Now we have to get a contract ahead of time.” She likes to hire J-1 participants. “We rely on these kids. I prefer to have foreign students than American students. American students steal—they’re lazy.”
But at South Moon Under, an upscale clothing store on Rehoboth Ave., a woman at the cash register said that they don’t hire J-1 visa students. “They just want to make a lot of money,” she said.
Though the point of the J-1 visa is to facilitate cultural exchange, Moldovan student Livia Lupu says that she has really only experienced one facet of American culture so far. “People yes, places no. When I finish working, I'll go to Washington. Maybe New York.” Until then, she has her one day off a week. “I sleep,” she says.
Maria Kostadinova manages the Ice Cream Store on Rehoboth Avenue. She’s not a J-1 visa participant, but she used to be. She first came to Rehoboth two summers ago from Varna, Bulgaria. Now, she’s an international affairs major at the University of Virginia.
“I just decided that I loved it here,” Kostadinova said. “You meet different people every day, you meet different people every summer.” She’s come back to work at the Ice Cream Store every summer since she first arrived in May 2013.
“My first year here I got 40, 45 hours a week. We were probably 25 people working here. Now the kids are getting between 50-60 hours a week because there are less people,” she said.
Kostadinova estimates around 70 percent of the summer workers at the Ice Cream Store are there on J-1 visas. “I really don’t know,” she said when asked who they would hire without J-1 students. This year they have workers from Bulgaria, Lithuania, Turkey, Ecuador, and Serbia. Their employer provides them with housing, but they have to pay $100 a week. Kostadinova said that most jobs also offer housing, but it depends on the employer.
The J-1 visa program has come under increased scrutiny in recent years.
Four years ago, 200 international students walked out of a Hershey packaging plant in Palmyra, Pa. They accused the agencies that arranged for their employment, as well as their employers, of misrepresenting the opportunity (there is not much cultural exchange to be had in overnight factory shifts. They also accused them of underpayment and abusive working conditions.
In a deal struck with the U.S. Labor Department in 2013, the students won $213,000 in back wages and an additional $143,000 for the health and safety violations present at the packing facility.
“I don’t know if I’m coming back or not,” Bulgarian student Vasilena Mitrova said in the back dining room of Gus & Gus. “We’ll see. I’m not going to think about next summer yet.”
She turned to back to her tables. A whole room of hungry families waited for her.
Molly McArdle is a contributing writer at Brooklyn Magazine and a native of the District of Columbia.