Threatened visa program could harm North Shore resorts


Most of the time the North Shore of Lake Superior feels far removed from the heated immigration debates raging in other parts of the U.S., but local resorts and the tourism industry are increasingly concerned about reports coming out of Washington about the J-1 visa program.

The Trump administration is reviewing the J-1 visa program for significant reductions or even elimination, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report. The report said the State Department was recently directed to rewrite regulations that could significantly reduce or eliminate the J-1 program. The program allows up to 300,000 individuals to "participate in work- and study-based programs," according to the State Department website. The program is being reviewed for its impact on the national workforce after the "Buy American, Hire American" executive order was signed by President Donald Trump in April.

The visas allow participants to live and work in the U.S. for up to a year as part of an educational program. Local resorts use the visas to hire foreign-born workers as they prepare for a career in hospitality and allows them to get a feel for the industry in the U.S. Typically, students start out as part of the housekeeping, groundskeeping or kitchen staff and many rotate through several departments that also include guest services to get a better overall sense of working for a resort. The visas also allow resorts to have a good estimate for how much staff they will have for a certain period of time and allows them to make plans based on those numbers.

"We rely very heavily on the workers that come under that visa," Odyssey Development human resources manager Kelley Sparrow said. "Without them we would have significant issues operating. They work in departments and in positions that are hard to recruit for and fill and we can count on them and rely on knowing that we have 15 people on this date and they will be employed with us for this amount of time."

Odyssey owns and operates seven different resorts along the North Shore from Duluth to Grand Marais. Lake County Commissioner Peter Walsh recently brought up the issue at a Lake County Board of Commissioners meeting and said up to 60 percent of staff at North Shore resorts could be affected by the program. The Cook County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors recently passed a resolution asking Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and Rep. Rick Nolan to do all they could to protect or even expand the program, and Walsh was trying to gage support for a similar resolution by the Lake County board.

Odyssey interns, or J-1 visa employees working for the company less than a year, often start in the kitchen or housekeeping, Sparrow said. However, the company tries to provide the breadth of experience and many times the interns will also build strong customer service skills and even begin to grow within the company. Sai Bezawada arrived in 2002 for an internship, but quickly grew within the organization to become general manager of Grand Superior Lodge in Castle Danger and was eventually named vice president of operations, overseeing the day-to-day operations of all the Odyssey resorts.

Bezawada grew up in Nellore on the Bay of Bengal coast of India and studied hospitality in Switzerland. He had an internship lined up following school, but the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks the year before threw all his plans into flux. He learned about the J-1 program and began the application process to come to Minnesota's North Shore.

Bezawada said he grew up in Nellore, a "small town," with a population of more than 600,000 people. By August 2002, he was living and working at Caribou Highlands Lodge in Lutsen, population 190.

At the time, the J-1 visa allowed workers to stay in the U.S. for 18 months at a time and toward the end of the period, Bezawada decided to apply again, a benefit of the program is participants can apply repeatedly, because he had made some good friends and enjoyed the lifestyle on the North Shore. It was a gamble because Odyssey wasn't quite as well established as it is today.

"It seemed to me that this area didn't have a big enough labor pool," Bezawada said. "I felt that maybe this was an opportunity for me to continue to grow my career and a way to capitalize on the opportunities I had."

Within three years he was running Grand Superior Lodge and another three years after that he was the vice president of operations. Today, Bezawada is Odyssey's vice president of growth and development, but he remains an advocate for the J-1 program. The length of the visas allow students to get some real world work experience as well as experience life in the U.S.

"I think the J-1 provides an easier route for people to get into this country, to find opportunities or even just culturally, to find out what the U.S. is all about for a short period of time," Bezawada said. "It's a very good program to do that, it's not as extensive and complex other visa programs. It gives you enough time to evaluate your options to see if this is something that you really enjoy being here and maybe I should explore other options to extend my visa."

Both Bezawada and Sparrow said if the program is reduced or eliminated, it won't take long for guests to notice the effects. Guests would see longer check-in lines, more hastily cleaned rooms and resort amenities could be reduced.

"Whenever a department is understaffed it's hard on everybody," Sparrow said. "It's hard on the management staff, it's hard on the guests, it's hard on everyone. It's hard on the fellow employees that are there."

Bezawada said even reducing the duration of the J-1 visa from 18 months to one year was a "big mistake" and reducing or eliminating the program all together would be disastrous.

"I think, given the demographics and the reality of the population and where we are, some of these big resorts will absolutely suffer," he said. "We are so dependent on this program to get seasonal staff during the summer months. If you don't have staff during that time, I can see services at these resorts being vastly reduced because they won't have enough staff to keep up with operations, without question."