MASHPEE — When Laurie DePina of My Cousin Vinny’s Junk Removal advertised bicycle availability at her location, she received a flood of calls from J-1 students, who were desperately in need of transportation.
“It’s not easy to find bikes believe it or not,” said DePina of Mashpee. “And these students are just looking for the easiest way to get around.”
The J-1 students, who are also known as seasonal, cultural exchange visitors and workers, began calling DePina from as far as Provincetown in search of two-wheelers.
“They need them to get to and from work — they are working at places like Roche Bros and down at Popponessett Marketplace,” she said. “They don’t have a lot of transportation options.”
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Seeing the demand, DePina started to help as many J1 students as she could — even creating a “cause of the week,” on the My Cousin Vinny’s Facebook page, where community members could donate money to buy J-1 students a bike.
“Even if it’s only $10 it’s something,” she said. “So we can help people that need it.”
For other J-1 students, she and her son Vincent Doheney, co-owner of My Cousin Vinny’s, along with Patrick Wooten, gifted bicycles to those who couldn’t afford them.
Hello Summer J-1
DePina’s endeavors eventually connected her with Judy Scaglione, a volunteer with Hello Summer J-1, an organizational outreach collaboration between local churches, which seeks to help J-1 students experience a safe and successful summer as they work on Cape.
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Scaglione has been involved with Hello Summer J-1 since 2019, and said the organization helps thousands of students from around the world find housing and transportation.
“Housing and transportation are the two biggest priorities for these J-1 workers,” she said.
Throughout the year, the organization builds partnerships with businesses like Cape Cod 5 to help prepare for J-1 arrivals. The bank, in particular, donates roughly 1,200 “bike backpacks” annually to equip students with travel tools like bicycle lights, which help students get to and from work in the evening.
“It’s a big endeavor,” she said. “Every year we spend several weeks packing the bags with potato chips, front and back bicycle lights for safety, and we include safety tips on our Hello Summer J-1 site.”
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For businesses that are directly hiring the J-1 students, Hello Summer J-1 encourages them to arrange housing and transportation options for the seasonal workers, who often pick up second jobs. Especially, said Scaglione, because the kids are already spending thousands of dollars to travel to the United States to work. Finding bicycles is essential to their success, she said.
“Just to come here, they have to pay groups who find them jobs, they have to pay for their visas and health insurance,” she said. “So it runs into an awful lot of money.”
Two-wheel sales dwindle
Catherine Dow Boyle, an associate pastor at the Mid-Cape Worship Center, said she founded Hello Summer J-1 to inform, help and provide friendship opportunities for J-1 students.
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While the organization formally had a bicycle program, the efforts came to an end after the bicycle volunteer had an illness in his family. While that has somewhat impacted students’ ability to obtain bicycles before they arrive on Cape, she said the real setback has been bicycle shops which have switched from sales to rentals to accommodate tourists.
At one time, Benny’s in Dennis Port sold bikes for $80, Dow Boyle said, but the chain store closed in 2017, leaving just a handful of bike stores throughout the Cape. At Orleans Cycle, for example, an adult hybrid bicycle rental costs $125 per week, according to its website. Other businesses can cost $15 per hour.
“I have a list of places that have bikes and we used to refer students to them. But now the kids are coming back to us saying these places are doing rental only,” she said. “The rentals are very expensive for the J-1 students.”
Cape Cod J-1 workforce down by 3,000
In 2019, Dow Boyle said roughly 5,100 J-1 students came to the Cape to work from countries including Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Ireland, Russia, Malaysia and Serbia. While the students are still originating from many of the same nations, the number of J-1 students who are coming to the Cape has dwindled to only 1,185 expected to arrive by July, according to Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce data.
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Paul Niedzwiecki, chief executive officer of the Cape Cod Chamber, said his office has been conducting a deep dive into summer work travel visa data for J-1 students and said there are about 100,000 J-1s issued nationally, with the Cape taking roughly 5% of the total number.
But for the first time, J-1 program sponsoring agencies are requiring businesses to provide housing for the seasonal workers. Because businesses are struggling to find housing opportunities for their workers, he said 3,000 people have been cut from the Cape’s summer J-1 programming, as sponsoring agencies direct their students to other places across the nation.
“This is the result of the intersection of the housing crisis and the labor shortage. And it also looks like it’s going to be a long-term problem,” he said. “Because the real estate market has changed.”
Complicating the situation, said Niedzwiecki, is that many J-1 students previously received help through volunteer groups attached to faith-based organizations around the Cape. Aside from Hello Summer J-1, many volunteers have begun to age out, he said, and retire. In response, the chamber is organizing efforts to take all existing host families through these volunteer networks, and bring them under one regional group so the host program can expand.
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“We want to step up that host program because that could help as early as next summer,” he said.
The chamber is also looking towards the adaptive re-use of older hotel and motels. Niedzwiecki said 96% of businesses on the Cape have 20 or fewer employees, and 60% of those, have five employees or fewer. Businesses like Chatham Bars Inn or Ocean Edge Resort have the ability to purchase homes for their employees or can use some of their hotel rooms for J-1 students. But not all small businesses have that advantage, he said.
“Coming up with a model through adaptive re-use of motels and condominiums … could really help smaller businesses participate,” he said.
Niedzwiecki said communities also need to look at increasing density at town centers to accommodate seasonal workers.
“Permitting and allowing the kind of seasonal workforce housing that we absolutely need is essential,” he said. “We are feeling this right now. We are currently being impacted economically and there is a huge opportunity loss because of the labor shortage.”
For DePina, there’s only so much she can do for this year’s influx of J-1 students. But she said My Cousin Vinny’s is trying to think ahead for 2023 students who will most likely be facing the same problems. While the business already regularly gives used furniture and supplies to those in need, she said the company is planning to build a facility this year so when J-1 students come, they will have bicycles ready and waiting for them.
“They are so polite, well mannered and grateful. I’ve learned so much for just putting free bikes on my page,” she said. “I hope by next year we can help them on a much larger level.”