The United States' J-1 Work Travel visa program has become something of a de facto temporary guest worker program, staffing tourism and hospitality industries in states like Idaho, where rents are high and wages are low.
On a Saturday afternoon in December, Mariana Santini opened her locker in the basement of the Limelight Hotel in Ketchum. It was her first week of work as a food runner. She greeted co-workers in Spanish, and then went upstairs to the lobby to begin her shift.
“I prepare silverware, I pick up dishes,” Santini told Boise State Public Radio as she scurried from table to table, tending to guests.
Santini is 21 years old. She’s from Argentina, and she’s here in Idaho on a J-1 Work Travel visa.
This is Santini’s second time working at the Limelight during her summer break. She came to work here to have an adventure and to get better at English, she said.
Each year about 100,000 students come to the U.S. through the Work Travel program. Those in the southern hemisphere come during their summer, which is our winter. When it’s summer here, students mostly come from Europe to take their places.
Established the same year as the Peace Corps, the J-1 visa program was intended to promote international understanding. Au pairs and camp counselors come to the U.S. on these visas. But Summer Work Travel students like Santini who work in the leisure and hospitality sectors make up the majority of the visa’s recipients.
An “Irreplaceable” Program
Despite J-1’s origin to promote cultural exchange, a report out last summer by the International Labor Recruitment Working Group (ILRWG) finds it has become more of a temporary guestworker program.
For employers, J-1 visas help fill labor gaps, especially when there’s a low unemployment rate. Tourism-based economies in places like Idaho are increasingly relying on the program to fit their needs. Work Travel employees nearly doubled in Idaho between 2015, when there were 382 students, to 2018, when 684 students got jobs through the program, according to the U.S. State Department.
Data made available by ILRWG’s FOIA requests, and shared with Boise State Public Radio, show Sun Valley Resort as the top employer of J-1 Work Travel workers in Idaho, as of 2015, which is the latest year for which the group received company-specific data.
“The program is irreplaceable, and without it, businesses like mine would struggle,” said John Curnow, the General Manager of the Limelight Hotel in Ketchum, which is owned by the Aspen Skiing Company.
Curnow said the company tries to hire locally, but that’s a challenge, Ketchum City Councilman Michael David said, for low-wage positions in a high-rent town.
“You can open the classifieds section of the newspaper at any time of the year and you’re going to have multiple pages of help-wanted ads in the service industry,” David said.
Ruslan Mukhamadiev was finishing up a housekeeping job at the Mountain Village Resort last September in Stanley, another resort town an hour north.
“To pay for this program, I needed to sell my car,” he said outside the resort’s restaurant, facing the Salmon River.
Coming to the U.S. through the Work Travel program is expensive. There’s the visa, money owed to third-party sponsors, the plane tickets and new clothes. All together, Mukhamadiev, who is from Russia, said it cost him around $5,000.
“Yeah, everybody found a second job,” he said.
Councilman David, back in Ketchum, said the visa recipients help lessen a whole community’s hiring burden when they pick up second and third jobs at grocery stores, restaurants or landscaping companies.
“It’s essential,” David said. “It keeps this tourist-based economy going.”
After arriving in Stanley, Mukhamadiev took a second job at the resort’s restaurant, and a third one at the ice cream shop, Stanley Scoops. The ice cream shop was his favorite job, he said, because of the interactions he had with Americans.
“Everybody is talking with you; everybody is asking, ‘Where are you from?” “What are you doing here?’”
Potential Reforms On The Horizon
It’s the type of experience the ILRWG said many work-travel students miss out on when they work behind the scenes in housekeeping or at places like Six Flags and McDonald’s — two of the biggest employers of work-travel students.
Another issue, according to the group’s report from last summer, is the U.S. State Department manages the J-1 visa program. Catherine Bowman, who requested and analyzed the data for the report and for her dissertation at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said State Department is not set up to oversee a jobs program for potential exploitation or discrimination.
“Most other programs of this nature where low-wage work is happening would be overseen by the Department of Labor,” Bowman said. That department has an entire apparatus set up to inspect workplaces, and to take action if there are problems.
A few years ago, the State Department proposed reforms to the Work Travel program, which include additional requirements for companies that place students in jobs, and more formalized cultural exchange activities. The department sent the proposed changes to the White House last summer, where they’re still under review.
And it’s not the only scrutiny the J-1 program has faced. In 2017, President Donald Trump signed a “Buy American, Hire American” executive order, which included plans to trim the number of temporary work visas available. Though data are not available for 2019, the total number of Work Travel visas stayed relatively flat over the past few years.
Still, these proposed federal actions have people like Ketchum councilman David thinking about the future on a local level.
“I would be really worried about the sustainability of our economy without the J-1s as an essential piece of it,” he said.
Ready To Head Home
In the meantime, though, businesses still benefit from using the visa program, and the students also want to keep coming.
Take Mariana Santini who returned for a second year — she convinced a friend to come along this time. By the end of Mukhamadiev’s visa, he said he liked the experience, but was looking forward to going home.
“Everybody’s tired because all day, every day, (we’re) working, working, working,” he said.
But as tourist activity started to slow down, he and his friends finally had some more time. They had been looking forward to rafting on the Salmon River all summer.
“We wanted to go rafting, but the company said Monday was the last day for rafting, so we (couldn’t),” Mukhamadiev said.
The rafting company had just closed for the season. Mukhamadiev went home in September. He wants to return to Stanley someday and maybe make it down the river.
Photo credit: An employee in a hotel bar. J Mark Dodds / Flickr