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Overseas Restrictions Limit J-1 Visa Arrivals: Door County Businesses Prepare For Workforce Shortage

COVID-19-related restrictions have bottlenecked the visa process in overseas countries that have historically provided a cultural exchange and an important part of the summer workforce. As a result, there will be fewer J-1 visa students in Door County this summer.  

“Vaccine rollouts are not consistent throughout the world, and that is making it difficult because of visa appointments,” said Haldis Toppen, director of communications for Greenheart Exchange. The organization works with business owners and governments to coordinate the arrival and experience of students in the J-1 Summer Work and Travel Program, which has been renamed BridgeUSA.

Although the United States does not have travel restrictions specifically related to visas, the J-1 program requires students to participate in an interview at the U.S. embassy in their home country. Restrictions on gatherings and mandated office closures in some of those countries have meant that interviews cannot happen as quickly, or at all.

Toppen said Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, for example, are limiting the number of interviews that can take place in one day. Turkey is not issuing any J-1 visas and is instead focusing on processing other types of visas.

In some cases, students who worked in the United States in 2019 can forgo the interview process, but that involves just a handful of the approximately 300,000 students who come to the United States each year.

Phil Berndt, membership director for Destination Door County, is helping to coordinate a campaign to urge President Biden to prioritize the process of J-1 visas at international embassies. As of April 28, 50 proprietors of Door County businesses had signed a letter to the president written by groups representing tourism and commerce, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S Travel Association.

“We are facing a crisis,” the letter said. “Without decisive and timely action from our consular posts in April, we face long-term damage to BridgeUSA programs, U.S. public diplomacy and the businesses across the country that rely on exchange visitors to provide a small, but critical supplement to their seasonal workforce.”

Berndt said businesses are expecting a busy summer season as people feel safer traveling. Without the additional seasonal workforce, businesses may have to limit hours or services. In 2018, the J-1 program provided 494 seasonal workers for the peninsula. That number understates the workforce potential that J-1 students provide to the county because many work additional jobs at other establishments when they arrive.

“This has been affecting food service the most, with some area restaurants being forced to close a day or two each week during peak season because they didn’t have enough employees to stagger days off,” Berndt said. “Some of this was balanced out by COVID restrictions last year, but with occupancy restrictions lifted, having enough employees to operate at full capacity becomes an issue again.”

Jaime Blossom, manager at Al Johnson’s, said the restaurant usually brings in about 40 students for the summer season. This year, it will be lucky to get five.

“We’ve been busy since February, and now we’re going into what will be the busiest season in Door County ever,” Blossom said. “Our staff is going to have to work even more, and I can’t even think about if someone gets sick.”

The restaurant at Al Johnson’s shortened its hours for the season, and the kitchen at Al Johnson’s outdoor bar will be open only on weekends for now, as opposed to seven days a week, as management had planned.

Berndt said Destination Door County launched a recruitment campaign to hire more seasonal workers from places such as Milwaukee, Green Bay, Madison and Chicago. In many cases, potential employees got the job but couldn’t find housing. Businesses that employ J-1 students are required to provide housing.

“Clearly, promotion is not the challenge,” Berndt said. “Affordable housing is the challenge.”