OCEAN CITY — In light of last summer’s controversy in Pennsylvania that led this month to federal sanctions against the Council for Educational Travel, USA (CETUSA), a new organization has stepped forward to represent the approximately 1,100 foreign workers who spend summers in Ocean City.
Last week, CETUSA, considered one of the country’s largest international cultural exchange programs, was banned by the State Department from sponsoring foreign students who annually come to the United States for summer jobs.
CETUSA has maintained an Ocean City office since 2005 and has been locally represented since then by regional manager Annemarie Conestabile, who has been swamped in the last week trying to figure out her future as well as the 1,500 foreign students she annually works with to bring to the country, including about 1,100 who labor in the resort.
With CETUSA indefinitely unable to work with foreign students, Conestabile last week began seeking another sponsor organization. On Tuesday, she reported a partnership with Cultural Homestay International (CHI), a non-profit educational and cultural organization that organizes work programs in various countries and is a J-1 visa sponsor.
According to Conestabile, this new relationship means it will be business as usual in Ocean City this summer.
“Fortunately, we do have some good news this week. Another wonderful organization, CHI, has come forward and agreed to take us on and maintain the integrity of the program in Ocean City. So far so good … they are an excellent company and are willing to entertain maintaining everything the way it was here in Ocean City,” Conestabile said. “The students and employers should not have to be interrupted now.”
In a phone interview, Conestabile acknowledged it’s been a tumultuous week.
“Last week I thought I was out of a job and so did our year-round assistant, but my assistant and I worked around the clock for three days without pay to maintain the stability and to make the best of a bad situation. The business owners who rely on these seasonal staff were very concerned as well and understandably so. The landlords, too, they rely on these workers to fill their units,” she said. “If we could not have partnered with CHI, it could have been devastating to a lot of people here.”
In the meantime, CETUSA’s future is uncertain after the State Department’s five-month probe found the organization had failed about 400 foreign students last summer working in a Hershey’s Chocolate packing plant in Palmyra, Pa.
In August of 2011, hundreds of those students staged a much-publicized walkout from the plant protesting low wages, long night shifts and unsafe working conditions. The media frenzy led to the State Department’s involvement, and last week, Rick Ruth, acting deputy assistant secretary of state, told the New York Times new regulations will be enacted to document exactly what sort of occupations foreign summer workers are allowed to be offered. Ruth told the paper the CETUSA ban was a result of the investigation revealing a “scope and severity and pattern of noncompliance”.
Conestabile called the fallout from the probe “sad” this week.
“The bottom line is CETUSA lost its legal battle with the labor union and we withdrew our own designation actually before the ban was put in place,” she said. “My office here in Ocean City was in jeopardy for three days. I worked very hard to keep it together and I am thankful for the new relationship with CHI.”