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Student visa ban leads to worker shortage in Wisconsin Dells

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WISCONSIN DELLS (WKOW) -- A new order from the president could make things more difficult for some tourist attractions already dealing with losses from the pandemic.

This week, the Trump administration extended a freeze through the end of the year on many temporary visas for foreign workers. The effort aims to free up jobs during the pandemic.

But this could be another hit to the tourism economy in Wisconsin Dells. Business leaders say the community typically fills 16,000 jobs every summer. In a community of only several thousand workers, they rely heavily on the J-1 student visa program. That State Department program allows college students to visit the U.S. for a limited time to work and learn more about the world.

"We hire every single American who walks through the door," said Mark Whitfield, general manager of Noah's Ark Waterpark, but he explained, the J-1 visa workers are essential, too.

The growing program in the Dells employs the second highest number of J-1 students in the nation according to business leaders, but this year they're anticipating they'll be about 4,000 workers short.

"They're just incredible to bring over to the US, they're all college students and we get to show them what American culture is all about," said Whitfield.

Noah's Ark just opened a brand-new dorm to house 450 workers, but right now only about 20 are living there. The waterpark has been working for months, through the pandemic, trying to find replacement staff members from all over the country. But they're still short about 350 workers.

"Taking an American job would be the last thing that anyone would want, given the fact that we have this high unemployment, the J-1 program is totally different," said Tom Diehl, president of the Association of Wisconsin Tourism Attractions.

Housing is the biggest challenge when trying to bring workers to the city, according to Diehl. He's working with a recruitment committee right now to try to find more free or subsidized housing to attract employees to relocate for the summer.

''What you run into are college kids who are tied in to 12 or 11 month leases on campuses and it's been an impediment to come to the Dells to work, because they don't want to double rent," he said.

Diehl, who also runs the Tommy Bartlett Show in the Dells, chose to cancel that long-running ski show because of the uncertainty of the pandemic. He had been pushing Wisconsin's Congressional members to take action to stop the J-1 visa ban.

He says the community as a whole is running at about 60 percent of a normal summer, but the lack of workers could mean businesses cut back on hours, capacity or other services.

Noah's Ark will be closed Tuesdays for the next few weeks, to sort out staffing issues and do deep cleaning of the waterpark.

Down the road, the Wilderness Resort has been able to bounce back a little easier. J-1 workers have typically been a supplement to regular, year-round staff. The hotel and waterpark was closed for about eight weeks for the pandemic, but leaders have spent months aggressively hiring new staff.

"We knew this was the potential, their arrival this summer could be in jeopardy, so we've been aggressively hiring domestically, whether it's sign on bonuses, free housing in that dormitory, referral bonuses," said Joe Eck, COO of the Wilderness.

Right now, they have about 100 J-1 students working and they've been able to double their staff of local and US workers.

"A lot of them experienced unemployment during the pandemic or weren't able to work while they were at college, so this is their chance to come in, work and gain that money in order to go to school," Eck told 27 News.

The Wilderness is still hoping to hire about 100 new staff members this summer.

Most Dells area businesses started reopening about three weeks ago.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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