J-1 visa program helps Lake Tahoe businesses | TheUnion.com

J-1 visa program helps Lake Tahoe businesses

Claire Cudahy
Special to The Union

The lines were long to board the Tamarack chair lift at Heavenly Mountain Resort.

As hordes of tourists descended on the Tahoe Basin Nov. 17, skis in hand, local businesses are beefing up their workforce after a slim shoulder season — and for some of them, that means hiring from abroad.

Every year around 300,000 international students visit the U.S. through the J-1 visa program. There are 15 different categories in the exchange program, which, depending on the type, allow students to study, teach, do research or work for a temporary period of time in certain sectors.

Ski resorts, national parks and hotels in seasonal tourism markets hire the students for three to four months to work in restaurants, housekeeping and run operations on the mountain. The local demand is just not there, they say.

But at the end of August The Wall Street Journal reported that the Trump administration was considering changes to the employment-based parts of the J-1 program following his "Buy American Hire American" executive order back in April.

The White House originally wanted to address H-1 visas for skilled workers, which they said were undercutting American workers by bringing in too many cheaper foreign workers and driving down wages.

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But for the South Shore businesses that employ J-1 workers during the winter and summer months, changes to the program could have consequences.

600 on visas in South Lake

In 2016, around 600 workers on the South Shore were employed through the J-1 visa program — 468 of which worked in the zip code that includes Heavenly Mountain Resort. Across the country, around 7,000 J-1 workers are employed in the ski industry.

"While we don't speculate about any potential future changes, what I can say is that we support the J-1 visa program because it is important to our highly seasonal business," said Kevin Cooper, senior communications manager for Heavenly and Kirkwood mountain resorts. "Our operations consistently have more seasonal positions than can be filled by U.S. workers, so we're able to offer these opportunities to international students who come here for three to four months to fill positions in our resort operations, from food and beverage to ticket scanning to housekeeping."

Jerry Bindel, general manager at Aston Lakeland Village in South Lake Tahoe, has hired international exchange students in the high season to supplement his year-round workforce for over 12 years.

"We definitely felt the need for it. We first went out to the public, of course. We went through the newspapers, the classifieds, the online platforms like Indeed and Craigslist and all the job sites," he said. "We just couldn't attract the numbers of seasonal workers that are required to run our property."

Now every summer he hires around 40 J-1 students for housekeeping and guest service jobs, and 20 during the winter through the nonprofit Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE). In the summertime his workers come mainly from Eastern Europe — Slovakia, Czech Republic, Slovenia and Moldova — and in the winter from South American countries like Peru, Argentina and Brazil.

Without these workers, he said, his business would suffer.

"It would be a dramatic change to what we can offer to our guests," said Bindel. "I think it would also have a negative impact on our current full-time staff, our year-round U.S. citizens."

Issue headed for Senate

CIEE and other cultural and international exchange companies are currently lobbying to maintain the program. On Thursday the agency hosted a conference call to update Bindel and the other businesses that employ J-1 workers.

"There's a Senate appropriation bill amendment that is anticipated being passed within the next 30 to 60 days that would require any real dramatic changes to the J-1 program to go through a lengthier process through Congress rather than just an executive branch decision at the State Department level," said Bindel.

He said there may be some changes to reporting requirements to ensure Americans aren't being displaced from jobs and the exchange is a cultural program, not just a working one.

"There might be a little more in terms of documentation and follow-through justification in those areas," said Bindel. "There's a real positive feeling because of this appropriation bill amendment that the program is going to stay in a really solid state."

Though South Shore businesses do benefit from hiring J-1 workers, Bindel said the program really is "a cultural exchange."

"We get great students every year — and many of them come back for another season. They get to see what life is like in another country, and we really enjoy getting to know them," he said. "I really think the cultural aspect is very important to the program to fostering more cooperation in our world."

Claire Cudahy is a reporter for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of The Union based in South Lake Tahoe.

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