International visa restrictions cause hiring hit across industries

Aug. 17, 2020

By John Hult, for SiouxFalls.Business

Fourth-grade teacher Tamee Tolly spent much of her summer setting up a classroom that isn’t hers.

The instructor the room was meant for is stuck in El Salvador, hired for the Spanish immersion program at Sonia Sotomayor Elementary through the now-restricted visa program that has been the source of nearly half the school’s lead teachers.

Tolly, a former high school Spanish teacher who usually serves as a special education instructor at the elementary school, has been in regular communication with her international counterpart as the school year nears its start.

“She’s coming; we just don’t know when,” said Tolly, who decorated the room with a football theme at the lead teacher’s request. “You want it to look the way she wants it to.”

The situation is just one of the ripple effects for South Dakota and the surrounding area of a presidential proclamation issued in March and extended in June through the end of the year to bar the issuance of new green cards and several forms of guest worker visas. 

The proclamation came as a response to “some of the most extreme unemployment ever recorded” amid the COVID-19 pandemic, its express purpose to reduce labor competition from foreign workers.

In practice, however, the proclamation and other pandemic-related logistical snags have stressed hiring for tourism, construction, agriculture, education and other industries in the Midwest that struggle to find temporary and specialized employees.

Iowa’s Arnolds Park Amusement Park in the Okoboji Lakes area pulled in about one-third of the J-1 visa student workers it did in 2019. Wall Drug is around 60 staff short, owing to a lack of H-2B and J-1 workers. The Sioux Falls School District has shuffled teachers within both its Spanish immersion and dual immersion programs to fill slots typically held by H-1B or J-1 visa holders. Construction firms in Sioux Falls have struggled to hire civil engineers for large projects. 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit over the June 22 order, arguing that it hamstrings businesses nationwide that rely on guest workers. Just this month, the Trump administration eased the restrictions somewhat, potentially opening the door to international hires in IT and critical infrastructure positions or in companies that can show that going without guest workers would create a significant financial burden.

Amanda Bahena, an attorney with Woods Fuller in Sioux Falls who helps connect employers with guest workers and guides those wishing to sponsor permanent placements through green cards, said the uncertainty of the recent changes has made planning difficult for her clients.

“The way things are happening right now doesn’t respect the amount of time, planning and investment that goes into this on the employer’s part,” Bahena said.

“They would always rather hire someone locally — it’s much easier and cheaper. When they’re going through this process, it’s because they aren’t able to do that.”

Proclamation pushes school district into ‘plans B, C and D’

Guest workers fill both a labor and cultural need for the Sioux Falls School District. Its Spanish and dual immersion programs rely on native or native-like Spanish speakers as teachers and interns. 

Until this year, many of the interns serving as classroom “language models” came to the U.S. on the J-1 visa program for college students, staying with host families with students in the immersion schools. Teachers and interns also came through the H-1B program, which is designated for guest workers with specialized training such as a teaching degree. 

“When a youngster’s first learning the language, it’s important to hear conversations between native speakers, which could be the teacher and the intern,” said Becky Dorman, the district’s human resources manager. “Most of these students aren’t hearing Spanish in the home.”

The initial visa proclamation, Dorman said, put the district to work forming “plans B, C and D” to ensure all its positions were covered. There were seven H-1B teachers approved to join the district this fall for the specialty programs, which employ about 40 people in total across the K-12 system, but none of them were able to make it for fall. 

The backup planning that started for the district in spring required some shuffling between programs. The dual immersion Hayward and Rosa Parks elementary schools teach courses in English in the afternoon. Some Spanish-speaking teachers on the English-speaking side of that program were moved into full Spanish immersion classrooms, which in turn shifted teachers from other schools and classrooms into the dual immersion program. 

Tolly’s classroom represents another example of the shuffling’s ripple effects. Her school had to fill her special education position as a result of her movement into the fourth-grade class of a teacher hired in February.

The district is still looking to fill four vacancies and hopes to eventually bring in its pre-approved J-1 interns.

“Plans are in place that will work for the entire year,” she said. “It’s a bonus if the J-1s can get here.”

Sonia Sotomayor Principal Tracy Vik hopes her teachers and interns will make it soon. The visa programs have been a significant source of teaching skill at her school. Native speakers with education degrees are particularly adept for Spanish immersion, she said, as they don’t simply teach students Spanish. They teach every course in Spanish, using English curriculum they’ve translated themselves to fit their classrooms.

“We’ve hired 13 former interns into our classrooms,” Vik said. “With all the reading, writing and translating into Spanish, we need highly specialized people to do this.”

Third-grade teacher Elsa Flores came to the school four years ago after studying education and Spanish at Augustana University and worked under an H-1B visa for some of those years. 

Without the H-1B program, “I would have had to go home,” Flores said.

The Honduras native now calls Sioux Falls home, and she enjoys making connections with students and their families. At the end of the school year, Flores spent four hours going house to house to deliver the sunflowers she’d started from seed for her students before in-person schooling shut down this spring. 

Last week, Flores had a video chat with a student who was excited to give her a virtual tour of his garden to see the plant, which now stands 6 feet tall.

“They’ve been sending me pictures all through the summer,” she said.

Flores will meet her new class this month, but the visa proclamation and travel uncertainty have had an impact on her life. She’s married to a U.S. citizen whom she met in college and is approved for permanent residency, but she’s still waiting on confirmation. She’d typically visit home during the summer months, but worries about securing a return trip kept her and several other teachers in town. 

“With everything going on, the lawyer advised us not to go back to Honduras because maybe we wouldn’t be able to come back,” Flores said.

Tourist destinations impacted

While schools prepare for fall, tourist destinations are wrapping up a summer season that saw significant change through the visa ban. 

Arnolds Park Amusement Park in Iowa has hired international guest workers for over a decade. The college students who arrive on J-1 visas often return for multiple seasons. 

Muhammet Karacali, a Turkish engineering student, was glad to return for a second summer manning rides and games after his first Iowa run in 2019. He can work on his English skills, meet new friends and earn money to carry him during the school year in his home country, where he expects he’d make about $2 an hour at a summer job. 

“For me, it’s been a great option,” Karacali said. “All through the world, English language skills are important, so it’s really helpful to get experience with native speakers. And I’m having fun here.”

The J-1 program carries both work and cultural components, and the sponsored international students take in U.S. attractions during their off-hours. Typically for Arnolds Park, the season is capped with a trip to Minneapolis.

Karacali feels lucky to have made it to the U.S. this time around. His paperwork for 2020 was ready this spring, but he was concerned about sudden visa changes and flight availability.

“Right before I came here, I was really worried,” Karacali said. “Airplanes were really hard this year because of coronavirus.”

Karacali is one of just 25 J-1 students on staff at the park. Typically, the figure is closer to 80. Other local businesses have gone without J-1 students and H-2B temporary workers. 

The policy change in March forced a scramble at the start of the season.

“So it worked out that we did hire almost all American workers in the beginning and did end up getting a handful of the J-1 visa students with that program right before they cut that program off, so it’s worked out well that we have been able to staff the facility and keep it up and running,” said Arnolds Park marketing manager Paul Plumb.

The change has been felt across the business community, according to Marshall Doeden, the park’s operations manager. Last year, there were 140 J-1 students assigned to the ZIP code for Arnolds Park, Iowa, and an additional 65 working in the surrounding area.

“I was the only one in town who got any J-1 students this year,” Doeden said.

Help-wanted ads were everywhere this summer, and wages were “going through the roof.”

The high schools in the area simply don’t graduate enough students to fill the need for the popular vacation spot, he said. Managers have done more, and some retirees have rejoined the workforce.

“People are having to step up and do a lot more things across the board,” he said.

If the order remains, it could affect hiring all through the area next season, as well, since planning begins so many months in advance.

Wall Drug in western South Dakota had a similar story.

The venerable tourist hot spot closed for a few weeks at the end of March, but reopened in April. When the peak summer season rolled around, human resources manager Anne Jo Spotted Bear had just seven H-2B workers. In 2019, the Wall ZIP code had 80 workers in the J-1 category alone. That has meant the staff of 200 at Wall Drug sits at about 120.

Spotted Bear understands that there are labor markets where guest workers might compete with laid-off citizens, but that’s not the case in Wall.

“When you only graduate 16 seniors, your unemployment extent just isn’t there,” she said. “Anybody in Wall who wants a job has a job.”

Some temporary employees pick up extra hours for other businesses, she said, so the impact extends beyond Wall Drug.

“These students can work more than one job,” she said. “So when you think about it, you’re not just losing 60 people. You’re losing closer to 120.” 

S.D. Retailers: Guest workers critical to economy

While not a direct party to the U.S. Chamber’s lawsuit, the South Dakota Retailers Association is connected through its partnership with the National Retail Federation.

Guest worker visas were critical for small businesses across the state long before the order, according to SDRA Executive Director Nathan Sanderson. Wall Drug’s situation mirrors that of several West River establishments.

“A lot of tourism-based businesses see that increased traffic over the summer, and a lot of them rely on these visa programs,” Sanderson said. “It’s not a new thing, but this year has been unique.”

The extension order came midseason, but the earlier order had already cramped hiring. The pandemic had slowed tourism somewhat, but not to a standstill — South Dakota has remained open and has drawn road-trippers who might have otherwise flown to further-off locations. 

“This is not going to be a record year for tourism, but South Dakota has been better off than other states,” he said.

The question mark of visa approval is also a hit to small businesses that need specialized employees, he said, which often struggled to fill positions and expand before the restrictions.

South Dakota still has more high-tech and engineering jobs than the local workforce and out-of-state hires can easily fill.

“If you’re in New York, you probably have a number of people you can find for those positions,” he said. “Even though we’re a net in-migration state, we still don’t have the workforce we need for some of those positions. In many cases, lack of access to a highly skilled workforce is the No. 1 thing preventing businesses from expanding.”

Visa changes cut across industries

The proclamation and the pandemic have added strain to a guest worker system that has been “a wild ride” for the past three years, Bahena said.

Two years ago, H-2B visa applications were processed on a first-come, first-served basis. A rush to apply in 2018 for the 2019 season crashed the Department of Labor system for several weeks, Bahena said, slowing down the approval process.

Last year, visas were processed in a lottery system. Throwing employers who’d come to rely on specialty workers for years into lottery competition with every other business struck Bahena as unfair to the long-term participants. This year’s restriction on non-agricultural temporary visas, visa renewals and applications for permanent residency didn’t help matters, she said.

It takes at least six months of planning to bring in guest workers — often longer. 

“It’s tough because we didn’t see this coming,” Bahena said. “I have a lot of clients who consistently bring in workers … and we have a lot of them (workers) who are here trying to determine if they’re going to request an extension.”

Logistical issues such as the closure of U.S. embassies abroad, travel restrictions and flight cancellations made for some unprecedented moves by employers, she said.

“With some of the H-2As from South Africa, their employers got together and chartered a flight to get them here (this year),” she said. “That’s how great the need is.”

Bahena understands the desire to keep jobs available for laid-off citizens, but she said the visa programs are used to fill jobs many of the suddenly unemployed cannot easily jump into, like operators of precision agriculture equipment or workers in farm operations, rural veterinarians or civil engineers.

“A single mother who lost a job in retail isn’t going to fill a position milking cows at midnight in a rural dairy,” she said. “The people who are getting laid off were not the ones working the positions that needed to be filled. There are gaps in the workforce, and that’s what these visas are there for.”

Unemployment is industry-specific, she said, which is why broad-brush changes to complex immigration policies can be so disruptive. Construction continues in Sioux Falls, for example, but access to H-2B civil engineers for large short-term projects is now restricted. Bringing in an out-of-state engineer for a temporary project can be a hard and uncertain sell, which is why the added difficulty of sponsoring guest workers is worth the effort, Bahena said. 

Given that some projects set budgets and time lines based on the expected availability of specialty guest workers, sudden policy changes can have a big impact.

“There will be projects that just won’t get done this year on the construction side,” she said.

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International visa restrictions cause hiring hit across industries

From education to tourism, industries statewide are scrambling to find workers they typically would have brought in from outside the country.

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