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Many U.S. travel brands use a foreign worker visa program to help their operations run smoothly during peak seasons. For some companies, these workers, who arrive under the J-1 visa program, are a significant percentage of their workforce.
But, President Donald Trump’s proposal to make cuts to the program has much of the travel industry concerned.
The Trump Administration is considering major cuts, new requirements or eliminating the program, which brings tens of thousands of foreign workers to the United States each year for work and cultural exchanges, the Wall Street Journal reported last month.
The White House’s proposed cuts to the J-1 program, which dates to the 1960s, stem from the Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order signed earlier this year. The White House feels that foreign students and workers who are granted visas to work in the U.S. are taking jobs from Americans who need them.
While separate from the J-1 program, it’s ironic that President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida filed requests in July to hire 70 temporary foreign workers as part of the H-2B visa program, which allows U.S. employers to bring foreign workers to the United States for temporary, non-agricultural work.
The Trump National Golf Course in Jupiter, Florida also filed a request to hire temporary foreign workers, The Hill reports.
The problem with the White House’s rationale is that companies such as seasonal hotel and ski resorts can’t hire enough workers – American or foreign – even with the J-1 program in place, said Dave Byrd, director of regulatory affairs for the National Ski Areas Association, a U.S. trade association for ski owners and operators that represents 313 alpine ski resorts.
With ski season starting in a few weeks in some destinations, some U.S. resorts are particularly concerned that any cuts or changes to the program could have dire consequences for their businesses, said Byrd.
The U.S. ski industry typically employs 7,000 to 8,000 J-1 visa workers annually, but some larger ski areas still see 10 percent of their positions go unfilled each season, he said. And some U.S. tourism businesses were already seeing a reduction in foreign worker visas during the past year.
In comparison, the U.S. ski industry employs nearly 130,000 Americans, said Byrd. “J-1s are a small fraction but an important fraction of our workforce,” he said. “I’ve already had HR directors from resorts around the country call me in a panic if they can’t have access to the J-1 program.”
Job openings in U.S are at an all-time record high right now, said Byrd, and unemployment percentages in ski resort communities have also plunged. He feels the White House is wrong in believing that the J-1 program is killing American jobs.
“We have rural communities in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Vermont, and New Hampshire – just to name a few – where unemployment is below two or three percent, that’s simply astonishing from a labor standpoint,” he said. “In five Colorado counties home to dozens of ski areas, unemployment rates are around one percent.”
The ski industry has increased the number of J-1 workers at its resorts since the 2009 recession, said Byrd. “We weren’t using as many J-1s in 2009 during the height of the recession because it was quite easier to find American workers,” he said. “This very anti-immigrant element within the White House believes that if we were offering $25 per hour for these jobs that we wouldn’t have a problem. That just underscores their ignorance for operating a seasonal business.”
J-1 Program Requirements
By design, the J-1 program already can’t take away U.S. jobs or disadvantage U.S. workers.
The U.S. Department of State manages the program, and a J-1 visa job can’t displace an American job under its provisions. And both a J-1 worker and American worker must be paid the same wages. U.S. taxpayer dollars also aren’t used to fund the program; participating companies pay and sponsor J-1 workers.
In 2016, the State Department granted more than 143,000 J-1 visas for au pair, summer worker and camp counselor positions. “We continue to implement J-1 visa programs at the same levels we have for the past few years, said Nathan Arnold, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State’s bureau of educational and cultural affairs. “There has been no change in our procedures for handling applications for J-1 visas.”
J-1 workers also must receive training and companies and businesses must provide cultural activities and opportunities to introduce workers to American culture, said Shannon Dierenback, vice president of human resources for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, a Colorado-based park and resort management company that manages some U.S. national parks and tourist railways, for example.
Like Byrd, Dierenback said some of Xanterra’s parks have many open positions even with J-1 workers. She estimates 20 percent of jobs go unfilled in some parks.
“We already need to maneuver our operations as it is,” she said. “The J-1 program is a key part for us are during our shoulder season of mid-August-October when U.S. college students, for example, are back in school. We’re also finding that our seasons are being extended and this program is so important for that.”
Some 3,500 of Xanterra’s workforce (25 percent) are seasonal employees and many of them are J-1 workers while the rest of its employees work year-round. “We’ve been talking to American employees and they’re saying the top things they enjoyed about working with Xanterra was the J-1 program,” said Dierenback.
The economic impact from the program is worth the cost, said Dierenback. The program allows a 30-day grace period for workers to travel the U.S. after work assignments end. “Over $509 million goes into this country each year from that one month when the workers go and travel,” she said.
J-1 Has Bipartisan Support
If not at the White House, the program has friends and supporters in the U.S. Congress.
A U.S. Senate appropriations committee passed an amendment on September 8 that would prevent any funding from the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961, which established the program, from being changed by the president through an executive order.
But the White House could make an announcement about the program’s future any day, and the amendment is tied to the federal governments fiscal 2018 funding bill, which may not be passed until October, said Byrd.
The program has the support of both Democrats and Republicans. Mayors and governors from around the country have been writing letters to the White House in support of J-1, said Mark Overmann, a spokesperson for InterExchange, a U.S. organization that helps J-1 workers with their visa applications and work placements.
Some advocacy organizations such as the Alliance for International Exchange, say conversations with Congress about the program’s future have been fruitful, said Ilir Zherka, executive director of the Alliance for International Exchange.
“Any cuts to the J-1 program would result in a fire-American policy, automatically reducing the number of Americans who are working because some companies won’t be able to sustain operations,” said Zherka. “Implementation of any policy changes to the program are unclear at this point. A regulatory process would take months, for example. Or will there be some executive action to curtail these programs? We’re waiting to see.”
With the summer travel season winding down in many U.S. destinations, many travel companies are thinking about how their business could be impacted next year if they don’t have access to J-1 workers. While a decision on the program from the White House is expected soon, the possibility of changes to J-1 is causing confusion among many visa applicants and foreign workers considering applying to the program.30