By: - July 31, 2019 8:44 am

Trojan Horse at Mt. Olympus water park in the Wisconsin Dells

Report on summer visas by the International Labor Recruitment Working Group

A special visa program to bring short-term visitors to the U.S. has ballooned into “a source of cheap and exploitable labor,” says a new report — and Wisconsin ranks number three among states making use of that feature.

The Summer Work Travel program, which enables foreign visitors to work during their stay in the U.S., is the single largest program category under the U.S. State Department’s J-1 Exchange Visitor visa — originally created to promote cultural understanding.

But while the summer work program accounts for more than one out of every four J-1 visas granted, it operates with no federal regulation or oversight, says the report, Shining a Light on Summer Work: A First Look at the Employers Using the J-1 Summer Work Travel Visa. The report was prepared by the International Labor Recruitment Working Group, made up of labor economists and worker rights organizations.

“It really is a guest worker program, but without the regular rules and government oversight that you get with other guest worker programs that exist,” one of the report’s co-authors, Daniel Costa of the Economic Policy Institute and a visiting scholar at the University of California-Davis law school, told the Wisconsin Examiner. “The State Department is operating without any rules, and that’s leaving workers unprotected.” 

Abuses including physical threats, wage theft, retaliation and human trafficking have been reported by some workers participating in the program, the report warns.

In 2018, Wisconsin employers hired 6,299 workers in the J-1 SWT program, researchers found. Only Massachusetts (6,588) and New York (6,950) employed more. 

In 2015, the most recent year for which numbers identifying employers were available, Mt. Olympus Water and Theme Park in Wisconsin Dells was the number-one business to use the program, accounting for 1,054 workers. The next four state employers, also Dells resorts, each had only about a third of that number.

More recent employer data wasn’t available because it had to be obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. “The State Department is not transparent” about the program, Costa said.

Other U.S. visa programs for foreign workers include some basic employer rules, said Costa. Employers must pay prevailing local wages for occupations, must attempt to recruit U.S. workers before offering jobs to foreign workers, and must pay state and federal payroll taxes for visa holders. Employees under those programs are not supposed to pay recruitment fees. 

None of those rules apply to the J-1 SWT workers. For example, J-1 SWT workers pay fees to sponsoring organizations and can be charged for transportation, housing and insurance. J-1 SWT employers don’t have to pay state or federal payroll taxes. “Employers get a free ride on a lot of things,” Costa said.

With no State Department expertise on labor standards, sponsor organizations are deputized to monitor the working conditions for SWT participants. That’s a conflict of interest because “the sponsors make money by recruiting more J-1s,” Costa added. 

The report calls for an overhaul of the Summer Work Travel program to institute strong labor protections, bolster local wage standards, regulate recruitment to combat fraud and exploitation, ensure workers recourse when their rights are violated and make the program transparent to public scrutiny.

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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