‘I don’t think anything will change’: Visas held up for foreign student seasonal workers in Alaska

Mariia Fylyppova, a Ukrainian student currently waiting in Bulgaria for her J-1 visa so that...
Mariia Fylyppova, a Ukrainian student currently waiting in Bulgaria for her J-1 visa so that she can come work in Alaska this summer. She's been waiting for a while now.(Taylor Clark)
Updated: Jun. 23, 2021 at 7:00 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Even though communities in Alaska are welcoming tourists once again, worker shortages are making it extremely difficult in some towns to keep up with the increasing demand. A large portion of the worker shortage is due to large backlogs in visas at U.S. embassies around the world.

In an announcement from early April, the U.S. Department of State explained that the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted embassies’ ability to process routine visa services. It says the volume and type of visa cases each post will process depends on local circumstances.

For out of country students who come to work in Alaska, the kind of visa that they usually come on is a J-1 visa, an exchange visitor visa.

Later in April, the department announced that they would be addressing the backlog of visas in a tiered approach. Worker visas for exchange programs are near the bottom of the priority list.

It’s affecting towns that usually employ these kinds of seasonal workers. Business owners in Seward, for example, say they depend on them during the summer months. With the worker shortage, many restaurants are closing two days a week and several have reported extremely long wait times that tourists have been getting upset about.

On the other side, it’s a lost opportunity and a loss of hope. Mariia Fylyppova is a Ukrainian student who is currently waiting in Bulgaria for her visa. She said she’s been there waiting with her friends for several weeks now, and doesn’t know if she’s going to get one at this point.

“The first couple of weeks I was sort of waiting and calling the embassy and calling the agency,” Fylyppova said, “but it means I’m just hanging out with friends. I don’t think that anything will change. Like unless there was some kind of miracle. So I’m just kind of moving on and looking for jobs here.”

She said she’s constantly checking in with the agency that she’s working with for her program and with the embassy itself. Fylypovva said she’s had all the paperwork filed since February. The reason she went to Bulgaria is because the embassy told her to go there for the final steps of acquiring her visa.

“They called me and they told me that the embassy on the third of June was supposed to open more slots for the interview, and I would have to be there 10 days prior to the interview because of the COVID restrictions or whatever,” she said. “So basically I hopped on the plane I came here to Bulgaria and nothing has changed.”

Fylyppova said she only knows a couple of people who have been able to get their visa. She would like to get to Seward where she’s supposed to be working for the summer in some of the local hotels, but at this point she said she’s readjusting and is looking for a job in Bulgaria instead.

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