From the Baltic to Nags Head ... Teens From Eastern Europe Flock to U.S. Jobs

Go shopping for barbecue fixings at the Food Lion in the Outer Banks and you’ll notice the cashiers’ Eastern European accents.

Walk across the street to the local Dairy Queen and order from fresh-faced workers who are standing at attention and eager to serve. Go for dinner at Turf’s Up restaurant and hear the day’s specials from waitress Indre Babiliute, a 21-year-old student from Lithuania.

She is among the 1,600 foreign students working this summer on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a major beach destination for Washingtonians.

"The coastal areas really depend on this group of workers because there is no labor force," said Michele Walker, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Employment Security Commission (ESC). "College students in the South are not working at the beaches anymore."

It appears American teens aren’t applying for jobs at seasonal locations across the country.

Last summer, only 56.9 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds worked or looked for a job -- the lowest percentage since 1964, according to the Labor Department’s Bureau of Statistics. The rate has been declining since 1978, when it peaked at 69.1 percent.

The unemployment rate on the Outer Banks, a string of barrier islands off the North Carolina coast, fluctuates dramatically. In the winter months it reaches as high as 18 percent. In the summer, the rate is drastically reduced to just over 1 percent.

"You want to see business development and growth, but you also need a workforce," said Willo Winterling, president of the Currituck County Chamber of Commerce on the Outer Banks. "We do not have enough year-round population to support businesses."

This is the third year Food Lion has worked with overseas agencies to bring in the seasonal help, who arrive from Poland, Lithuania and the Slovak Republic for the summer season. The chain, which has 1,200 stores in 11 Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, is employing 400 foreign workers in its six Outer Banks grocery stores this summer.

"We are very pleased with them," said Jeff Lowrance, spokesman for Food Lion. "They help us at a time when stores are at their peak."

The foreign students are paid $8 an hour plus overtime for any hours over 40 per week. Food Lion also helps them find housing.

Tammy Burleson, who owns Turf’s Up, employs two other Lithuanian students and a young woman from Poland.

The women rent rooms for $200 a month in one of Burleson’s two condos, a bargain in an area with large, mansion-like beachfront homes that can rent for $9,000 a week.

"They are hard workers, which is more than I can say for some American kids," Burleson said.

Some of the local businesses that are desperately trying to fill restaurant, retail and hospitality industry positions work with outside agencies such as BUNAC, Work Experience USA and SWAP to recruit workers and make sure they have the correct paperwork to work in the United States.

California-based Work Experience USA, which has recruitment offices throughout Europe, is an Exchange Visitor program under the U.S. State Department.

Student applicants pay about $1,000, which covers their round-trip flight, insurance and assistance in securing a J-1 Visa, the visa for foreign nationals who have been accepted as participants in approved work and/or study programs. The visa allows the foreign youth to work in the U.S. for a maximum of four months and travel for an additional 30 days.

"Everyone that comes through our program is authorized to work," said Janice Haigh of Work Experience USA.

In one-on-one interviews, staff test students' English proficiency and discuss their job and location interests. Students are matched with the prospective employers who list with the company.

Besides opportunities in the Outer Banks, Work Experience USA connects foreign students with jobs in the National Parks, Ocean City, Md., Six Flags amusement parks, parts of Texas, Los Angeles and New York, Haigh said.

Word-of-mouth has created an influx of students from certain countries to certain U.S. destinations, such as the Irish working in Rhode Island and the Polish working on the Outer Banks, she said.

"They've heard from friends that the areas are a great place to live and work," Haigh said.

Kenneth Kee, a claims supervisor at ESC’s office in the Outer Banks, said foreign workers often come into his office looking for a second job.

"And we need them," Kee said. "There are still ‘Help Wanted’ signs everywhere. We’ve got about 150 jobs still listed with us: bookkeepers, receptionists, nurses, tellers, cooks, landscapers, salespeople."

Food Lion is also employing large numbers of foreign workers at its stores in Rehoboth Beach, Del., and Ocean City, Md., Lowrance said.

As the Outer Banks beach season has extended into October, foreign employees are becoming increasingly attractive to local businesses because they can stay for a full four months, Winterling said.

"Those employees can come here earlier than when our kids can and they can stay later than kids going back to college before Labor Day," Winterling said.

She said the chamber’s members have been very pleased with the foreign workers they employ.

"They have a very good work ethic and attitude," Winterling said.

Besides making more money than they would at similar jobs at home, the young people also get the opportunity to enjoy a summer at the beach.

"They have a support system set up with many students from their own countries who speak their own language," Winterling said.

Babiliute said she has enjoyed her experience in the United States.

"I have the opportunity to travel and be at the beach, make money and take it back with me," she said.

Last year, Babiliute worked two jobs; one as a waitress at Turf’s Up and one in a local retail store, Exotic Cargo. But this summer she is concentrating on work -- and tips -- at the restaurant, which features dinner entrees that average $23.

"There is no question, I make much more money here than I would at home," she said.

The young woman said she has had to adjust to American clientele.

"Waiting tables is much different here than in Lithuania," Babiliute said. "Service has to be much better here. In Lithuania, we don’t care so much about service."