In England, Kishon Roberts spends her days checking Twitter for policy updates and emailing the U.S. Embassy in London for the status of a visa application that’s key to her camp counselor job this summer in the United States.
Two hours north of New York City, Roberts’ would-be workplace, Camp Pontiac, is preparing to open June 26.
It’s unclear if Roberts, 18, will make it there in time. And some camp leaders are worried they won’t be able to offer a full slate of youth programs due to a shortage of foreign, seasonal staff this year.
American summer camps are up against the same staffing crunch plaguing other employers seeking lower-wage workers, but with a lingering pandemic twist. Many camps rely on foreign workers who come on temporary, cultural-exchange visas. Because of processing holdups and a COVID-19-related travel ban on certain countries, those workers aren’t coming.
The staffing woes are complicating what would otherwise be a booming year for summer camps. With the pandemic on the wane in the U.S., families are eager to send their children to in-person opportunities again — and many have the money to do it, after a year of saving on activities.
There’s also new federal money in the pipeline to support sending more children to summer learning experiences. And parents are looking for a break after 15 months hunkered down with their children.
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The counselor crunch has caused at least two camps to cancel operations this summer.
“We’re going to see more camps that can’t open or have to cut capacity,” said Scott Brody, the director of Camps Kenwood and Evergreen in New Hampshire. Brody is missing about 20 camp counselors because of the J-1 visa backlogs. And he has another two dozen former counselors who aren’t returning this year because they must catch up on schoolwork missed during the pandemic.
Camp directors have been urging President Joe Biden’s administration to speed up the visa processing, Brody said.
“There’s normally 12,000 to 13,000 camp counselors who come from the U.K. This year there were only about 5,000 applications, and even those haven’t been processed yet,” Brody said.
“If the State Department would free up those 5,000 people, it would make a big difference,” he added.
Backlog in processing J-1 visas
A major hangup is the in-person appearance at a U.S. embassy necessary to complete the J-1 visa. Embassies in certain countries have limited hours or are still closed because of the virus.
Then there’s the U.S. ban on travel for most people coming from 33 countries, including the U.K. Exceptions exist for people like spouses, journalists, academics and others whose travel is deemed in the national interest.
Paul O’Mahony, from Galway, Ireland, has been trying to wrangle a “national interest” exception because he typically works at summer camps for chronically sick kids in the U.S. or Ireland. So far, he’s had no luck. The U.S. embassy in Ireland has not opened yet for J-1 services, O’Mahony, 29, said.
That means his chances of arriving in time for his intended summer job at Camp Korey in Mount Vernon, Washington — a camp for children with serious medical conditions — are looking slim.
“I do it for the kids, and I love the work,” O’Mahony said. “If this doesn’t happen for me, I’m looking at another 12 months before I can work at summer camp again.”
Camp Korey has two other would-be counselors, a lifeguard and a leadership team member, in the same visa limbo, said Matthew Cook, the camp’s chief program officer. The camp still plans to open in mid-June without them, but campers and families would be better served with those workers’ level of expertise.
“It’s been super challenging,” Cook said.
More than 25,000 camp counselors are foreign workers
Normally the J-1 cultural exchange visa program, now called BridgeUSA, brings about 25,160 counselors to American summer camps. Last year, because of pandemic restrictions, only about 220 workers on exchange visas participated in the camp counselor program, according to the U.S. State Department.
The State Department couldn’t say how many J-1 visa counselors will be able to come this summer. The Department has, however, waived the personal appearance requirement for some J-1 applicants.
The holdups started last summer, when former President Donald Trump’s administration 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 March 31, but the process has been slow to restart for foreign seasonal workers. In a normal year, those workers would fill positions at camps and in tourist hotspots such as theWisconsin Dells, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Late last week, the federal government said it would issue an additional 22,000 foreign worker visas in a different category to help fill U.S. summer jobs in tourism and agriculture. Approximately 33,0000 H-2B visas had already been issued for the second half of this year, and all of them had been claimed.
The move on the H-2B visa front came after pressure from U.S. lawmakers on the East Coast, who were responding to cries for help from small businesses who couldn’t find enough seasonal workers.
“I’ve spoken with multiple Cabinet secretaries and the White House at this point, all of whom recognize the challenge and are working hard to address the J-1 visa backlog,” said Sen. Jean Shaheen, D-N.H., in a statement.
“The J-1 visa program is critical to fill seasonal jobs in New Hampshire, like summer camps and lifeguarding.”
Other obstacles for summer camp
The latest worker shortage adds to the chaotic restart of many American summer camps.
Camp directors are still trying to sort out Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on how to operate this summer. The agency’s guidance from April 24 calls for campers and staff to wear masks at all times, even outdoors, and to physically distance.
Then on May 14, the CDC said fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks or physically distance, except when required by other state or local ordinances.
There’s also pressure on camps and summer programs to serve more children whose social and emotional growth has been stilted during the pandemic.
And there’s more federal money available over the next three years to help, should schools want to partner with private day camps or overnight camps. In total, 1% of the $123 billion aimed at helping K-12 schools recover from the pandemic must be earmarked for summer enrichment programs.
“We know we need to help kids this summer, more than in any summer we can ever remember,” said Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association, which represents the approximately 15,000 camps that serve about 26 million children in a normal American summer.
“Children need to regain some of those unpracticed social and emotional competencies, friendship skills and communication skills. We need to help them rebuild some confidence.”
Some camps close due to worker shortage
One residential summer camp for adults with disabilities in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains announced it would stay closed this summer because it couldn’t guarantee enough staffing for safe operations. Camp Jaycee, in Effort, Pennsylvania, typically fills 70% of its 100 staff positions with foreign workers on J-1 visas.
“We could do everything recommended by CDC to successfully and safely run a summer camp, but we couldn’t get the staff,” said Maureen Brennan, director of Camp Jaycee.
In New Jersey, Elks Camp Moore, which serves children and adults with disabilities, also announced it could not open this summer, largely because it couldn’t secure its usual number of counselors from overseas.
Back in Leicester, England, Kishon Roberts is still hoping she can get approval to work at Camp Pontiac in New York state. But the soonest in-person appointment she could get at the U.S. Embassy in London is in September, she said.
By that time, Camp Pontiac will have finished for the summer and Roberts will have to return to her university studies.
Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @emrichards.