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US employers struggling without J-1 staff

The suspension of the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue and has led to the forced lay off of thousands of US workers, research from the Alliance for International Exchange has suggested.

J-1 visaThe Alliance said some business owners were forced to close or cut back hours due to lack of staff. Photo: Pixabay

300,000 people visit the US on J-1 visas

However, opinions are mixed as to whether companies are able to replace international staff with domestic workers.

Surveying 659 seasonal businesses and summer camps in August 2020, the Alliance noted that 93% report they cannot meet staffing needs.

“The May unemployment rate for young Americans… has been particularly high”

President Trump justified the halt on visas as a means of addressing rising unemployment among US citizens, which according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics stood at 8.4% in August, down from 14.7% in April.

“The May unemployment rate for young Americans, who compete with certain J nonimmigrant visa applicants, has been particularly high — 29.9% for 16-19-year-olds, and 23.2% for the 20-24-year-old group,” he said at the time.

“The entry of additional workers through the H-1B, H-2B, J, and L nonimmigrant visa programs, therefore, presents a significant threat to employment opportunities for Americans affected by the extraordinary economic disruptions caused by the Covid-19 outbreak.”

Half of all businesses surveyed by the Alliance said they were forced to shorten their season or hours as a result of the suspension. One in five businesses could not open at all this summer.

“Not only did the reduction affect business practices, it also affected American jobs and revenue,” highlighted the survey.

One out of seven host employers laid off, furloughed, or reduced the wages of full-time US employees. Two-thirds of businesses reported a loss of revenue, with 287 businesses reporting an average $471,359 in losses.

Further, host employers noted an overwhelmed and exhausted local workforce, without the supplemental seasonal help of the international students who participate in the J-1 program.

Referring to Trump’s ban on the issuance of J-1 and several other visa categories until the end of this year, Ilir Zherka, executive director of the Alliance, said US businesses that participate in international exchange programs have been hard hit by the June 22 presidential proclamation.

But opinions appear mixed as to whether companies are able to replace foreign staff with local ones.

As winter approaches, the ski industry, which employs thousands of J-1 visa holders each year, is scrambling to find new recruits – but it’s not all bad news.

Aspen Skiing Co in Colorado – which usually hires around 400 J-1 visa holders annually – told local media that “applications from [US] college kids are up pretty significantly”.

Speaking with the Colorado Sun, the company’s head of human resources Jim Laing added that while staffing shortages were keeping them up at night, they believe they “can replace [international staff] domestically”.

However, one survey participant said that they would “go out of business” without foreign students next summer.

J-1 visas provide entry to the US for a wide range of visitors, including scholars and specialists, as well as au pairs, camp counsellors and Summer Work Travel participants, with the latter being the largest category.

A report last year called for its reform due to some employers using the scheme as a “source of cheap and exploitable labor“.

According to the State Department, 300,000 people visit the US on J-1 visas each year from 200 countries, of which 86% are under the age of 30.

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