As J-1 Visas Stall, So Do Businesses

International work-travel program waits for travel to resume

Global restrictions placed on travelers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic include an estimated 500 international students who would normally arrive in Door County through their J-1 visas as part of the Summer Work Travel Program.

The United States Department of State, which administers the J-1 visa program, instituted a 60-day suspension on all program-related travel beginning March 11. That would mean the program could resume soon, but that’s not likely.

“This is a constantly, rapidly evolving situation,” said Haldis Toppen, the director of communications for Greenheart International, an organization that helps to coordinate employers, the Department of State and international students. “Right now, we do have a June 1 start date. That’s the earliest projected start date, and that’s based off of guidance from the Department of State.”

Employers in Door County have been told to plan for J-1 visa students to be in the county and working no sooner than June 15.

But it’s not completely up to the Department of State. J-1 visa applicants must complete an in-person interview at the U.S. embassy in their home country, which can be among the most challenging and complex components of the program. As of April 29, U.S. embassies had not resumed these interviews. Embassies in other countries may also restrict their citizens’ travel abroad.

Students and their families may also decide it’s a bad time for a young person to travel across the world to work in an industry that depends on the movement of people.

Meanwhile, businesses are wondering whether they need the added workforce if Door County receives fewer visitors as a result of reduced travel.

“We are going to try to operate in the most efficient way we can with the least amount of staff,” said Jewel Ouradnik, owner of Rowleys Bay Resort. Ouradnik often has about two dozen J-1 visa students working each summer – up to 35 percent of her workforce.

The restaurant at the resort won’t open until around July 1, and there will be limited service in guests’ rooms unless guests request more service.

“In general, the change in how we serve our guests is going to be more related to the coronavirus than the number of staff, but they are interrelated,” Ouradnik said.

In 2018, there were 494 J-1 visa students working in Door County – a 45 percent increase from 2016. The vast majority work in Egg Harbor (123 students) and Sister Bay (196). 

Ouradnik said the J-1 visa program has been her best option to fill all of the resort’s employment needs.

“This year, we’re not sure what that’s going to look like,” Ouradnik said. “We have been in contact with the sponsors, and they haven’t canceled the programs yet. They have been pushing them out.”