First of two parts
DENALI PARK — It's way after midnight at the Denali Park Salmon Bake, a rustic bar near the national park's entrance, and the party is finally heating up.
Most of the sweaty young people on the dance floor are college students from Serbia and Bulgaria who have already worked 12 hours or more earlier in the day cleaning hotel rooms and washing dishes in the thicket of tourist businesses that line the Parks Highway. DJ Skittles got them on the floor with Rihanna and Beyonce but rewards them now with a song from home.
She plays a track with lyrics that translate to "you are the woman for all time" as the crowd hoists beer in the air and sings in Serbian. Outside, a cosmopolitan-looking clutch of young women wearing motorcycle jackets and high-heeled sneakers line up with men in pointy-toed shoes to flash passports to the bouncer at the door.
As the sign outside announces, this is J-1 Club Night.
Today, the college students taking low-paid service jobs in Alaska's summer tourism industry are likely to be young foreigners participating in a controversial U.S. State Department program known as J-1 Summer Work Travel.
The program brings students from a select roster of countries to America for five months of "work and cultural exchange" in seasonal jobs. The idea is to give them the chance to earn money and travel in America, in hopes they'll return home to tell about it. They go wherever seasonal work exists — from Cape Cod seafood restaurants to Florida beach hotels to Wyoming ski resorts.
Here outside Denali National Park and Preserve, in an outpost of commerce surrounded by Alaska wilderness, they are working fevered summers of low-wage labor.
For lots of them, J-1 night is a rare chance to socialize.
"You see people you've only seen in their work uniforms and you don't recognize them," said DJ Skittles, otherwise known as Alexandra Duricic, a 25-year-old born in Serbia who has been spending summers at Denali for seven years. Duricic manages several J-1 students during her day job at a nearby cabin rental business.
The J-1 workers provide a ready-made temporary workforce to serve the record 2.1 million tourists projected to visit Alaska this summer.
They work for employers that range from multinational corporations like Holland America and Hilton to mom-and-mom gift shops. Though some 1,656 J-1 visa workers came to Alaska in the summer of 2014, according to the U.S. State Department, many are nearly invisible outside the workers' dorms, fast-food kitchens and laundry rooms they work in.
Denali may be home to the state's densest concentration. Business owners in the area estimate that at least 700 seasonal workers from overseas work here. But J-1 workers are everywhere in Alaska that tourists are, from the kitchens of Ketchikan to the hotels of Fairbanks. Hundreds of college students from countries that include China, Thailand, Jamaica and Estonia are placed in Anchorage, laboring from May to September making sandwiches in Girdwood, cleaning rental RVs in Anchorage and assembling hamburgers at Eagle River fast food restaurants.
Some critics say the J-1 program has gone far astray of its intent.
They say workers are vulnerable to exploitation by their employers and have little recourse when things go wrong. They question whether working double shifts on the grill at a fast food restaurant offers a true "cultural experience" of America. And some say J-1 workers are taking jobs from locals — a notion contested by business owners. The guest workers can also be partners in dancing around the program's stated purpose. Many students say they're here only for the paycheck, which is often much larger than they could make at home.
Both sides agree on one thing: Behind the scenes, the workforce of young foreigners has transformed the way Alaska's tourism sector runs.
Eat. Sleep. Work. Repeat.
As the early morning summer twilight fades, DJ Skittles played a song by Fatboy Slim for the crowd: "Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat."
Club night notwithstanding, life as a J-1 worker in Alaska is hardly a party. Though their experiences and satisfaction with the program vary broadly, interviews with foreign seasonal workers during 2015 and 2016 suggest that the J-1 visa program attracts many students who are interested in working to the point of exhaustion, hoping to save as much money as possible before the window closes on their visa eligibility.
On a June afternoon, Adelajne Hajdani worked the cash register at a gift shop in the collection of commercial operations near the Denali park entrance known locally as "Glitter Gulch." The raven-haired 24-year-old is from Albania but studies business administration and political science in Bulgaria. In Alaska, she catches a worker shuttle bus at 5 a.m. and cleans hotel rooms until 3 p.m. Then she works a shift at a gift shop that won't end until 11 p.m. before riding the bus back to her dormitory.
Her goal is to save $10,000 or more this summer. How much could she make in a summer in Albania?
"You cannot even compare it," she said.
A few stores down, Ivanina Tsoneva, a homesick 20-year-old known as Nina, sat behind the counter in a quiet shop selling gems and minerals, her second job after housekeeper. This summer marked her first time out of Bulgaria, where she studies journalism.
Companies that facilitate J-1 worker placements recruit on her college campus every year. Her friends had returned from summers in America with lots of money saved and stories of wild times. She decided to take a chance, and took out loans to pay for a $1,700 plane ticket, plus agency fees, to get to Alaska. One month in, she was exhausted by working up to 13 hours a day at her two jobs.
"Every single time when I open my eyes in the morning I say, 'Why? Why?'" she said, half-joking.
If she didn't work two jobs, she said, she might not be able to pay back the loans she took out to fund her trip. Many others were in the same situation, she said.
It wasn't all bad. She liked her dorm housing in Healy, north of the park. She found the food provided in the cafeteria there delicious. She hadn't experienced much on her days off; like many J-1 workers, she had not been inside the national park. But she planned to go on hikes and outings offered at no cost to employees of the land-based operations of Holland America/Princess cruise lines, the main employer for Denali-area J-1 workers. The companies did not respond to requests for an interview.
For the moment, Tsoneva had another priority for her free time.
"Every single time I get a day off, I just sleep," she said.
Ten miles to the north in Healy, Lubomir Markov, Desislav Yordanov and Nedko Georgiev sat hunched over, smoking cigarettes outside a corrugated metal-sided dorm complex. Some 900 workers for Holland America and Princess-owned lodges reside there for the summer, doubling Healy's summer population. It's funny, the men said. Back home in Bulgaria, these same J-1 workers are studying to be engineers and lawyers. That's a side of them American tourists can't appreciate.
"We come here and we're housekeepers," Markov said.
In Alaska, the J-1 pipeline was at first a trickle, said Karen Reeves, a frank woman who owns several gift shops by the Denali park entrance and employs J-1 workers each summer. Then, about 10 years ago, it became a gush.
It works like this: The State Department designates U.S.-based organizations as "sponsors," companies authorized to act as the middleman between foreign students who wish to work here and the companies that wish to employ them. The program website currently lists 41 companies as sponsor organizations of the Summer Work Travel program, none of which are based in Alaska.
Sponsors often rely on a network of foreign partner companies to screen and recruit workers to come to the U.S. Both the recruiters and the sponsors can charge fees to the students to be placed in work. Those fees, added to the cost of airfare, can total $3,000 or more to participate in the program with a stated goal "to share their culture and ideas with the people of the United States," according to the State Department website. Students say they go into debt to afford the trip, and start the work season in the red. So they seek second and third jobs locally.
Reeves usually employs J-1 workers for their second job, which she said has to be approved by the placement agency.
Businesses near Denali will always need seasonal labor, she said. She hasn't had much luck hiring temporary workers from Alaska or the Lower 48, though longtime locals work as managers in her stores. The labor pool in Healy and Cantwell is small, and other parts of Alaska often have options for summer work that pay more and don't require relocation. Last year she advertised jobs on Cool Works, a website catering to adventure-seeking American college students. Two of her four hires never showed up in Alaska to work.
J-1 workers, on the other hand, literally arrive on her doorstep, beating a desperate path up and down Glitter Gulch in search of a second job on a daily basis. With them, she doesn't have to arrange for transportation or provide housing, a challenge in remote Denali.
"I couldn't do it without them," she said.
Reeves is bothered by what she sees as an attitude among some employers that dehumanizes the workers. People refer to them as "J-1s" rather than by their names sometimes. And unless you were looking, you might not know they exist at all.
"They are invisible," she said.
‘Accommodation is, as you can see, modest’
Anchorage has plenty of J-1 workers who share the work-til-you-drop ethos of their counterparts in Denali. But Alaska's largest city has another variable to contend with: housing.
Igor Zvernic, a 25-year-old from Belgrade, Serbia, spent the summer he turned 25 working at Buffalo Wild Wings and Humpy's, for the usual 80-90 hours a week. He said he was able to save nearly $15,000, a huge sum in a country where the average monthly household income is $300 to $400.
With days left in the 2015 work season, Zvernic returned to the apartment he shared in Midtown with six other Serbians. It was not a place in which he particularly looked forward to spending time.
"Accommodation is, as you can see, modest," he explained to a visitor. "Only mattresses and that's it, but it's OK."
It wasn't an exaggeration. Inflatable mattresses covered the living room floor. Though the students amassed a few folding chairs to add to the small kitchen table, there was little else. Zvernic's bedroom consisted of another inflatable mattress, an open suitcase full of clothes, a couple of books and a phone charging cord dangling from an outlet. Each of the six roommates paid $300 per month, Zvernic said.
Substandard housing is one of the biggest issues critics of the J-1 program raise. For workers who don't have housing arranged by their employer, like the workers at Denali mostly do, finding an apartment and stuffing as many people inside it as possible is a common scenario.
Zvernic said he didn't mind the housing and knew what he was getting into, but a less satisfied roommate showed bug bites. He said he had killed twenty black and red bugs in his bed that day.
A year later, Anton Antonets from Kazan, Russia, arrived in Anchorage to work at the Sheraton Anchorage Hotel's front desk and answering phones. In July, he was happy about his job and about being in America but he said his first housing situation felt like a slum.
The lanky 24-year-old had responded to a Craigslist ad offering to rent to J-1 workers specifically. He landed in a two-bedroom Spenard house he shared with seven others. Soon, the owner moved two more in. Antonets said he paid $250 in deposit fees and $350 per month in rent. Getting to the bathroom required the roommates stepping over one another, he said.
"I was feeling that not that I've got to America but some other place," he said. "Like a poor place."
He stayed for a while, but when the 10-person household became intolerable, he moved out into a duplex. In July, he was sleeping on the floor of a house he shared with just a few others. He had chosen to save money by forgoing the purchase of an air mattress.
Antonets said his job is giving him valuable experience for a potential hotel management career. But he said there's no way he'll be able to pay back the $4,000 he said it cost him in recruiter fees, sponsor fees and airfare to get to Alaska. He'd need a second job to do that. For now, he's eating cheaply — a lot of eggs and noodles — and hoping for a chance to explore the Kenai Peninsula before he leaves.
In Anchorage, J-1 workers can be found in the restaurants, hotels, fast-food franchises and even hardware stores. Businesses don't have to cater to tourists — just prove that they see a seasonal spike in business — to hire workers from the program.
At Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse in downtown Anchorage, this summer's staff includes 27 foreign seasonal workers from Serbia and Jamaica, mostly in kitchen and dishwashing positions, said manager Pete Burns. Last year, the restaurant group — which manages Flattop Pizza and Williwaw — employed about 20 J-1 workers.
"We probably picked up more (this year) because the labor market has gotten extremely tight here for the positions that these J-1s are occupying," Burns said.
Local hire is always the goal, he said. But he thinks J-1 workers will be part of the hiring strategy at Humpy's — and many other downtown restaurants — in the future. The workers are willing to do physically strenuous, low-paying jobs that historically have been difficult to keep filled all summer. Many, as in Denali, come back for a second or third summer.
"Local hires, they want to go fishing," Burns said. "They want to go do outdoorsy stuff. These kids that are coming over on J-1s, they want to work. They have 3 1/2 months to pay for tuition in Serbia or Jamaica."
The workers have become part of the fabric of the place, with Serbian music occasionally playing on the kitchen stereo and managers like Jessica Mailloux learning a few phrases in the language to speak with her staff members.
Burns, like some other employers, contends that the J-1 workers are more than just cheap labor.
"We have a few kids where we'll stay in great touch with them," he said.
In January, Burns visited Serbia on a J-1 recruiting trip to interview potential prep cooks and dishwashers in person. He reunited with former employees, who showed off the bars and nightclubs of Belgrade.
Karen Reeves, the owner of three gift shops near Denali, was similarly embraced when she visited former J-1 employees in Serbia in early 2016. Each one of their mothers served her elaborate meals, always featuring cabbage dumplings.
"I ate so many cabbage dumplings," she said.
When she went to meet the wife and baby of one former worker, he had a map of Alaska hanging on his apartment wall.
The lights came up before DJ Skittles finished her last track back in June. Serbians, craving more music, gathered around a table, raising their nearly drained beers and singing. A throng spilled out of the Salmon Bake to await the last shuttle bus back to the dorms in Healy.
Among them stood Taurus Baker. If the J-1 program was founded on the hope that cultures would mix, he was an emblem of it. From Cleveland, Baker had returned to Alaska for the third summer to work in a restaurant.
"How many Clevelanders … can say they actually worked in a place like this, in Alaska, or seen this view, or been with these people?" he said of the dozens of happy, groggy twentysomethings milling about.
J-1 night was the thing he told his buddies back home about.
"It's electric," he said. "I love everything about it."
Aleksander Deletic stood outside, swaying slightly. This was the Serbian student's first J-1 night in a summer spent toiling in the back of Denali restaurants.
"Someone told me you must come here," he said. "You must have fun."
Wednesday was a good night for it: He had only a standard eight-hour day of work ahead of him.
"And then after that," he said, "double shift and doubles and doubles."
The crowd began to disperse in laughing knots of young people. They walked into the full pink moon hanging heavy on the horizon. Before they knew it, 6 a.m. would come, the tourists would stir and it would be time to go to work again.