Visa Changes Could Equal Rough October

Door County Ice Cream Factory Owner Todd Frisoni typically relies on eight foreign employees working with J-1 Visas to make it through the season, but this summer he will only have four. Tighter restrictions from the State Department will have an effect on a number of small businesses in Door County. Photo by Dan Eggert.

Changes to the Summer Work Travel Program that supplies many Door County businesses with international student workers in the fall could leave businesses short-handed come October.

The State Department, which administers the cultural exchange program, has tightened rules in response to increasing reports of unsafe job placements, fraudulent job offers, job cancellations, inappropriate work hours and housing and transportation problems. (For more perspective on international workers in Door County, read “A Foreign Perspective.”)

The abuse of the program received national attention when workers walked out of a Hershey plant in Palmyra, Penn. last August. Workers protested unfair wages and work conditions and the lack of a cultural exchange component promised as part of the program.

In response the State Department issued new rules to strengthen the cultural exchange aspect of the J-1 Visa program that went into effect May 11. Officials from the State Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but the text of the new rules lamented that “the work component of the Summer Work Travel Program has too often overshadowed the core cultural component.”

The J-1 Visa allows foreign college students between 18 and 30 to come to the United States for a maximum of four months during their academic breaks to work in unskilled jobs as part of U.S. public diplomacy efforts. Jobs must be seasonal or temporary and provide opportunities for students to interact regularly with U.S. citizens and experience U.S. culture. The program brought 153,000 students into the U.S. in 2008, but that number has been cut to 109,000 for 2012. Nearly 8,000 J-1 Visa holders work in Wisconsin.

Nationally the rules making the biggest waves are those that will bar J-1 students from working in goods-producing industries such as agriculture, manufacturing, and construction. Those rules go into effect Nov. 1. Students will also no longer be allowed to work jobs that are predominantly done between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am.

Door County will be affected by a less drastic change. The State Department is strengthening enforcement of rules that require that the students return to their home country in time for their first day of college classes. That means Door County businesses will lose the services of most of their international staff by Oct. 1, and some much sooner, depending on which country they’re from.

In its program guidelines the State Department states that its rules “Must necessarily reflect academic calendars without regard for host employers’ specific needs.”

Daniel Ebert, Vice President of the Center for Cultural Interchange, a Chicago firm that operates as a private sponsor for many workers placed in Door County, said the program has been regulated loosely over the years. Workers have overstayed their visas, foregone the program’s travel component to squeeze in a couple weeks of extra work off the books, or worked around the clock to earn as much as possible to take home.

Ebert said almost all of the visas will end by Oct. 1.

“I understand the rational behind it and why they need consistency,” Ebert said, “But it’s unfortunate when you have evidence that a particular school doesn’t start class until later in October or November, just like universities in the United States don’t have one universal start date.”

Todd Frisoni, owner of the Door County Ice Cream Factory in Sister Bay, said he usually has a couple of international workers arrive in July and stay through the end of October, but this year that’s not going to happen.

Fortunately, Frisoni said he lucked out and found more American workers this year – likely a result of the poor job market for recent college graduates. As a result he’s housing just four international students (one Romanian and three Ukrainian students) this year instead of his usual eight. Come October he said he’ll just have to deal with some long weekends.

“For me it has just always worked out, and what’s going to happen is going to happen, so you can’t really stress about it,” Frisoni said. “I’m not as worried as much for myself as for hotels who are just as busy midweek in October as in the summer and have to turn over rooms every day.”

At Ephraim’s Somerset Inn owner Phil Koch is worried about exactly that. He has used four to six international workers as housekeepers each year since he bought the inn with his wife Donna in 2004. He said that some of the new rules are overly punitive on the workers.

The new rules require that workers register with the Student Exchange Visitor Information System within 10 days of arrival and within 10 days of any move within the country, and sponsors must check in with the students monthly to monitor work conditions and welfare. If the student misses one check-in the sponsor is required to terminate their enrollment in the program.

“They’re taking simple little procedural things and adding harsh penalties,” Koch said. “It’s like saying to a four-year old that if you draw on your desk you’re going to jail.”

Koch said the rules, geared to stop abuses at plants like the Hershey plant and others in the fishing industry, will have unintended consequences for tourism communities like Door County.

“What are the employers supposed to do?” Koch asked. “We don’t have a lot of local help. We’ve restricted this thing so much that it’s damaging American small businesses.”