Many industry leaders in panic over fate of J-1 visas under Trump

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Martha's Vineyard would be "crippled" without J-1 workers, said Nancy Gardella, executive director of the island's chamber of commerce.
Martha's Vineyard would be "crippled" without J-1 workers, said Nancy Gardella, executive director of the island's chamber of commerce. Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Michael Gordon

In the Hot Seat

Andrew Todd, CEO of Xanterra, the largest concessionaire in the U.S. national parks, talked about what the loss of the J-1 visa program would mean for the company, where J-1 workers make up 20% of peak season staff. Read More

In a move that tourism leaders say could cripple the seasonal travel industry in the U.S., the Trump administration is reportedly considering an executive order that would overhaul the J-1 visa program.

J-1 allows more than 300,000 visitors, mostly students, to work temporarily in the U.S. in one of 13 categories. The visitors often work in seasonal and remote tourist areas such as national parks, beach communities and ski resorts.

Industry leaders from Martha's Vineyard to Moab were in panic mode last month, and in a late August conference call with the White House, they urged the administration to keep the program alive.

Andrew Todd, CEO of Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the largest national park concession operator, who was on the call, argued in a letter to the administration that eliminating the program "would have a devastating impact" on Xanterra and the national parks and monuments it serves, since more than 20% of its peak summer season workers are J-1 visa holders.

"Xanterra runs an exhaustive and innovative domestic hiring program," he wrote. "Our experience with these efforts has proven that we simply cannot find enough American workers willing to work these short-term, entry-level jobs."

As first reported in the Wall Street Journal, the impetus to curtail the program derived from the "Buy American and Hire American" executive order issued in April, which called for a review of several programs, including J-1, to ensure that the interests of domestic workers are being protected.

Todd and other tourism leaders argue that J-1 workers do not replace Americans who would otherwise take these jobs. Instead, they fill a gap in areas where there is not a big enough labor pool to supply peak-season needs.

They also say that Trump's campaign assertion that those J-1 jobs could be filled by inner-city American workers is not realistic: It makes little financial sense for most people to move to some of the remote areas where the national parks or ski resorts are located for temporary seasonal work.

In response to a query, the State Department referred Travel Weekly to the White House regarding any potential changes to J-1 visa programs.

"We continue to implement J-1 visa programs at the same levels we have for the past few years," the State Department said.  "We are aware of the support that American businesses have shown for the program and its value to their local communities."

In the national parks and summer tourist locations, J-1 workers are hired in addition to U.S. college students. But the students are only available for about two months, and in most places the peak season is much longer than that. The J-1 hires can arrive in late May or early June and stay through early fall. 

"Without the J-1 you'd really be in trouble, because they don't have to leave at the end of August," Todd said. "They can stay another six weeks.

That is a major concern for beach communities like Martha's Vineyard, Mass. The island is home to 15,000 year-round residents, but its summer population swells to 115,000. Seasonal labor is needed from May to early fall, when more than 1,000 J-1 workers descend on the island, occupying more than a third of the seasonal jobs.

"Our season goes well into October, if not early November, and our own college-age students have to leave for school before Labor Day," said Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce. "They're gone before our second-biggest holiday weekend of the year."

Gardella said it would be an "absolute catastrophe" for the Vineyard as well as the neighboring island of Nantucket and Cape Cod to lose the J-1 workers.

"We would be crippled without them," she said. "Places would go out of business, they would be unable to open and function. When I tell you that our available workforce cannot fill these jobs, I am not overstating that in any way, shape or form. We simply do not have the available workforce to take these jobs."

Gardella also argues that the J-1 visa holders in no way compete with U.S. workers for whom it would not make financial sense to move for four to five months to an island where the cost of living is very high.

For ski resorts, where hiring U.S. college students is not an option since ski season takes place when schools are in session, being able to hire seasonal J-1 workers has been crucial. Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, said this is especially true because many of the largest resorts are in areas where the economy is very strong. 

"With record-low unemployment rates in ski resort areas, it's been a very important part of our employment mix," he said. "[Unemployment] is in the 2-to-3% range in places like Summit County, Colorado. This would just make staffing issues more difficult."

Berry said ski resort operators are very concerned about the ability to deliver the quality product that people expect.

"It wouldn't be catastrophic, but it would be impactful," he said. "Not for all ski areas, but for the ones that employ a larger number of people. Smaller, local places may not have any J-1 students, but it would impact every ski state at the medium and larger resorts."

Nathan Rafferty, CEO of Ski Utah, said that given Utah's strong economy and the wide swing in staffing needs from summer to winter, the J-1 workers help fill peak-season jobs that locals aren't interested in.

"Our economy in Utah is great, so people are looking for full-time jobs," he said.

Many Utah resorts use about 50 to 100 J-1 seasonal workers, he said. 

"If you ask their human resources departments to find that many people, and they are already really scraping to get quality seasonal employees, it's not realistic," Rafferty said. "We need to keep in place at a minimum what we have today. We'd actually like to see it expand."

Lance Syrett, general manager of three hotels located near Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park, outlined the predicament his area faces in a letter to the Trump administration last month. In the last 30 years, his family business' staffing needs have quadrupled while the local population "has not grown at all."

"The problem is pretty straightforward," he said. "You have a beautiful area that people love to visit because it is remote, but because it is remote, you don't have staff to serve the people who want to come. ... Our growth would not have been possible without the ability to hire these types of workers."

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