LAKE GEORGE, N.Y. (NEWS10) – Every summer, student workers come from all over the world to the Lake George area to work summer jobs at restaurants, hotels, the steamboat company and many other icons of the local landscape. Students come in on J-1 visas from a wide swath of countries across eastern Europe and Asia, seeking to learn abroad, improve their English, and see a slice of America.
In 2022, a combination of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and lingering COVID-19 travel concerns make the question relevant once again: How many international student workers does Lake George need to run? Lake George Mayor Bob Blais puts the number somewhere between 1,100 and 1,400.
Those numbers are the average for pre-2020 summers and include many workers who take more than one part-time job. In a pre-pandemic summer, for example, the Fort William Henry Hotel near the lake hired between 80 and 90 students in a given summer. The Six Flags Great Escape amusement park hired around 200.
Those numbers are part of a gradually increasing nationwide total in the 300K range, according to data from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. For example, 312,522 J-1 student work visas were issued nationwide in 2013. By 2018, it was up to 342,639.
Those numbers all changed in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most international travel, as well as many businesses, due to social distancing concerns. The Great Escape was not able to open at all. Fort William Henry was only able to get a small handful of student workers from Jamaica. Mayor Blais estimates around 300 workers were able to make it to the village – more than nothing, but not enough for the amount of tourist traffic the village and region still saw that summer.
Posts issuing visas were instructed to cease the process in March 2020, and weren’t able to get started until July. The Bureau of Consular Affairs issued 123,742 visas in the 2020 fiscal year.
Full numbers aren’t available for 2021 yet, but things got better. Fort William Henry was able to hire around 60 J-1 students in 2021. The Great Escape hired 86. As vaccines became more common and travel restrictions were lifted, things have looked hopeful for 2022.
And then, Ukraine. When Russia’s invasion began last week, countless Ukrainians were forced to move elsewhere in the country, separated from family and keeping in contact with friends within and outside Ukraine however they could. Fort William Henry has seen many J-1 student workers from Ukraine over the years.
In 2019, the U.S. issued 2,139 J-1 visas to Ukrainian students. With the invasion ongoing and travel essentially shut down, it’s unlikely that Lake George will see that slice of its workforce family. The area also sees students from Russia – 7,108 nationwide in 2019 – and the viability of those transfers in 2022 is up for question as well.
That leaves Lake George businesses expecting to lose two significant slices of the 1,100-to-1,400 students they’re hoping to welcome back. On Thursday, the Lake George Regional Chamber of Commerce shared a statement from InterExchange, which facilitates J-1 travel and experiences.
“The events unfolding in Ukraine do not represent the world that young people want or deserve. Instead, they stand in sharp contrast to the goals of mutual understanding and peaceful relations that exchange programs seek to accomplish,” the statement reads in part. “Our thoughts are for the safety and wellbeing of our alumni, the families and loved ones of our current participants, and the many people who have worked on behalf of these important programs in Ukraine and Russia. May there be a swift end to the aggression, and an immediate return to peace and mutual understanding.”
Blais says that businesses he has talked to have so far not had a problem finding international workers. Now, the challenge is ensuring housing for them. Anyone interested in helping on that front is encouraged to reach out to the Lake George Village Hall at (518) 668-5722.