Students blocked by suspension of visa program
Foreign exchange students have been blocked from coming to the United States, leaving a variety of Methow Valley businesses that rely on those seasonal workers short-staffed for the summer.
“I don’t know anybody that couldn’t use more help right now. Everybody I’m talking to in the valley is saying that there’s a labor shortage crisis,” said Bart Bradshaw, owner of Pardners Mini Mart in Winthrop. “In the last few weeks, business has been busier than last year. We have more people coming out here, to get out of the big city, and we have less employees to serve them. We have more people, less foreign workers, less regular workers, and it’s busy; it’s just chaos.”
A proclamation by President Donald Trump on June 22 suspended the ability of non-U.S. nationals to enter the country on J-1 visas. The J-1 visa allows foreign college students to work at seasonal or temporary jobs and travel in the United States during the summer, through the federal Exchange Visitor Program which is run by the U.S. Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
The President’s proclamation has suspended the program indefinitely. He asserted that “the present admission of workers within several nonimmigrant visa categories [pose] a risk of displacing and disadvantaging United States workers during the current recovery.”
Bradshaw has hired foreign student workers on J-1 visas for the past six summers, typically employing four each summer. This summer, Bradshaw had planned to do the same, and was in the hiring process until the program was canceled for the year.
The transition has been “very difficult” for Bradshaw, who had already hired four foreign student workers and had been holding an apartment for them (a stipulation to provide housing for foreign workers is a requirement of the program).
“We had secured housing, we’d done interviews with the people that were coming, we’d emailed back and forth, we were all set,” said Bradshaw.
Bradshaw has been holding the apartment for the past three months in anticipation of the foreign student workers’ arrival. It is now sitting vacant; a cost which can be added to a list of expenses that Bradshaw has incurred due to the cancelation of the program. Bradshaw spent hours on the hiring process, and has been providing overtime pay to the small staff of workers that Pardners is now relying on.
However, for Bradshaw, the major loss is simply the lack of available workers. “[The exchange program] makes up a critical portion of the summer help needed for seasonal business,” he said. “It is the perfect solution to fill that four-month gap [during the summer] that we need additional help for. And to have that gone as been difficult, I’m sure for all the businesses.”
Hiring local instead
Kyle Johnston, co-owner of Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe in downtown Winthrop, said that Sheri’s has staffed with J-1 visa holders for the past 10 years.
“About a third of our staff is filled by the foreign exchange students,” said Johnston. “This year, knowing that there was probably going to be an issue with the program, we were able to hire enough local kids to fill those positions. But, it was a challenge.”
“At the same time, in a situation like this I thought it was important to prioritize the local community, through hours and work. So there’s two sides to it,” said Johnston. “[But,] it was a shame to have to pull out, because I know that a lot of the foreign students use this money to cover their education for the next year.”
“Right now we’re doing good,” Johnston added. However, looking forward he noted staffing may become an issue in the fall. “The challenge that we’re going to run into is, what we’re going to do come September, when 100 percent of our staff goes back to school.”
“After Labor Day it’s just going to be me down here, and that’s going to hurt,” said Johnston. “It’s going to hurt a lot.”
The suspension of the J-1 visa program does not have a prescribed end date. Josh Buehler, owner of the Abbey Creek Inn in Winthrop, who has used to program for the past six years, said the next potential J-1 visa hiring season would be in 2021, and that he’d start looking into the possibility of it re-opening in November.
From all over
The J-1 visa program pulls from 200 countries, and allows for around 300,000 temporary visitors to enter the United States each year. In 2019 the state of Washington had 6,150 foreign visitors on J-1 visas, around the same number as Minnesota and Maine.
“We’ve gotten students from all over, Latin America, Europe, and Asia,” said Johnston. “This year we had students planning to come from Lithuania and Spain. They were all hired and setting up appointments. I had already started getting to know the students that were going to be coming out, over the internet.”
“It was really kind of sad to have to cancel the program,” said Johnston. “We definitely plan on using the program again, and as soon as we can.”
“We had three students last year,” said Richard Wasson, co-owner of the Methow Valley Ciderhouse in Winthrop, who hired J-1 visa holders for the first time last summer.
“Four weeks ago we were under the assumption that they would be coming back,” said Wasson. “Now we’re having a difficult time hiring servers and cooks; we’re not fully staffed.”
“The foreign exchange students that were here last year were really good, and we would have liked them to come back,” said Wasson. “They were just here for the summer, which is when we do probably 50 percent of our business, and when we need them the most.”
“The bigger businesses [in the Methow] that require staff rely on the foreign workers,” said Johnston. “The foreign students are hard workers, they’re here to work and earn money. So you miss that, the work ethic is really good … This year we don’t have that.”