Mr. Obama: You Can Create 100,000 Jobs for Americans with a Pen Stroke

By David North on February 9, 2011

The president can create 100,000 summer jobs for young Americans – our 16-24 year-olds had a thunderous 19.1 percent unemployment rate last summer – with a stroke of the pen.

Last July, at the height of the summer employment season, 4.4 million youth were unemployed and looking for work, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report. This July will probably be about the same. (For more on this, see "A Drought of Summer Jobs" by my colleagues Steven Camarota and Karen Jensenius.)

This action of the President's would not cost the taxpayers a penny, and it would open up thousands of summer jobs, paying at least the minimum wage, now held by guestworkers.

The jobs I have in mind are the typical of what college and older high school students have been doing for decades: working in hotels, restaurants, in urban areas and in or near summer resorts. No particular training or skills are involved.

How could the president open up some 100,000 jobs easily? Simply by deciding that paid work for our young people is more important than some minor diplomatic advantages that may accrue to the U.S. by bringing in foreign teenagers to take these jobs.

In short, what the president – or the Secretary of State – should do is to suspend the operations of the State Department's Summer Work Travel program, for at least the summer of 2011, if not for good.

This program is one of a plethora of governmental foreign worker programs that generally provide low-cost, docile workers for American employers. The government's announcement does not describe it that way, of course. For blogs on other foreign worker programs, all of which have more worker protections than this one, see here for H-1B, here for H-2A, and here for H-2B, for high tech workers, farm workers, and unskilled non-ag workers, respectively. The State Department's summer work program, naturally, has an alpha-numeric title, too; it is part of the J-1 exchange program.

There are two equally grim aspects of the State Department's summer program, which often brings in young people from poverty-stricken Eastern Europe: 1) it displaces more than 100,000 American youngsters who would love to have the jobs, and 2) it often allows the exploitation the foreign workers, who have no defenses against the all-too-numerous abusive or at least callous employers.

The president should be swayed by either argument. Why bring in 100,000 foreign workers when there are millions of young American who would like these jobs? According to one State Department document there were 116,387 participants in the program in the summer of 2008.

On the second point, the State Department's summer work program is almost a burlesque of how to run a foreign worker program. You would think that if State wanted to get diplomatic benefits from such a program, it would make an effort to see to it that the visitors were treated at least fairly.

A quick look at the structure of the program suggests otherwise.

If people are being brought from overseas in a State Department program to work in the American economy, you might think that they would be coming to a prearranged job (as they do in those not-necessarily-attractive H programs mentioned earlier.) But no, the department's announcement warns: "Most participants enter the United States with prearranged employment. However, sponsors are only required to place 50% of their participants each year. If a participant [i.e., the foreign worker] does not have a prearranged job, the sponsor will need to make sure that the participant has enough financial resources to support himself or herself during the employment search."

So after saving up for the airfare you cross the sea from, say, Moldova, and the sponsor does not have a job for you!

Similarly, there is a total lack of on-the-ground supervision in the State program. The Departments of Labor and Homeland Security, the people who run the various H programs, both have extensive nationwide networks which can be, and often are, used to enforce the rules of those programs. There are the wage-hour investigators in DoL, and the staff of ICE in the field for DHS.

In contrast, the State Department has virtually no employees outside of Washington in the U.S., and the ones they have tend to be passport clerks. So State has no institutional structure to even attempt to make sure the summer program is going well.

Further, the regulations for the program are cursory and appear to be toothless. If you like that sort of thing, read Title 22 of the Code of Federal Regulations, section 62.32.

Finally, as to workplace protections, the sponsors are supposed to tell the foreign students about the minimum wage law.

The Moldovan summer waitress will, of course, know exactly what to do with that kind of information, and can be counted on to fend for herself.

Given the State Department's lack of field staff, and its total lack of experience with domestic programs, much less low-skilled employment programs, one might expect that there would be problems with this and some other J-1 programs, and one would be correct. That will be covered in a subsequent blog.

In the meantime, all the president has to do to create 100,000 jobs for Americans – not glorious jobs, to be sure, but jobs nonetheless – is to drop a note to Secretary Clinton.