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Dells attractions still face staffing issues with delay in student travel program

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Student workers from Ecuador, at Wilderness Resort

WISCONSIN DELLS (WKOW) -- Wisconsin Dells area tourism leaders are facing challenges finding enough workers for the summer, as an international student work program is still in limbo.

Wisconsin leads the nation in bringing college students to the state to work and learn about the culture in the US.

"I love this place," said Diego Rojas, a college student from Ecuador, who works at Wilderness Resort this season.

Rojas says he's learned a lot in the past two spring seasons he's spent at the Wilderness.

According to statistics from the US Department of State, 6,439 summer work travel participants came to Wisconsin, up almost 400 over the year before.

But the pandemic put a halt to the program in 2020, when the Trump administration issued a freeze on temporary visas for foreign workers. Only 697 SWT workers came to Wisconsin that year, still ahead of any other state.

Rojas and others ended up getting stuck in the Dells after their work period ended, because of travel restrictions, so they stayed a little longer.

"I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm alone in another country," he said he thought, initially.

But those grounded workers were needed, as the freeze led to shortages at many tourist attractions in the Dells, which rely heavily on those student workers to keep up with visitors.

"It's been difficult. I mean, there have definitely been challenges in terms of staffing in general," said Kalahari Resort general manager John Chastan. "So we cope by just prioritizing and making sure that we were out there recruiting and trying to fill the spots that were open."

On April 1, that presidential proclamation was lifted but some embassies, like the one in Turkey, have said they won't be able to process visas in time for the summer season.

Turkey and Ecuador send the most students to the US, so it's expected to be a challenge.

"We are really uncertain. We're hoping to get about 500 J-1 workers this summer on property from about 20 different countries we work with. But because we don't know if foreign embassies are going to be open to issue the visas, there's a lot of uncertainty right now from day-to-day as to whether or not we will get those workers," said Heidi Fendos, a spokesperson for Wilderness Resort.

Both resorts say they need more than 1,000 workers every summer to staff the facilities. They're working on ways to recruit local workers, through job fairs and advertisements and shifting around staff to make sure they're covered.

The tourism leaders are hoping they'll be able to find enough help from other countries where embassies can keep up.

"The good thing is, we're not relying on one country," Chastan said. "Hopefully it'll work out. Well, I'm sure there'll be some hiccups in terms of how, what time certain countries that are able to get through the process and arrive, but we're hopeful that it'll all come together by summertime."

A State Department official tells 27 News it's not clear how many workers will be approved for the upcoming season.

"U.S. embassies and consulates are working to resume routine visa services on a location-by-location basis as expeditiously as possible in a safe manner, following a suspension due to COVID-19. However, the pandemic continues to severely impact the number of visas our embassies and consulates abroad are able to process. We are making significant efforts with constrained resources to safely return to pre-pandemic workload levels, but are unable to provide a specific date for when this will happen at each post," the spokesperson said in a statement to 27 News.

Diego Rojas is grateful he was able to return for a second season. His friend who introduced him to the Dells was not able to get her visa to come back again. But, he expects it will be his last, because he graduates next year.

Rojas is studying engineering and computer science and hopes his experience in the Dells will help him get internships in the future.

"For me, two years, this two years was really good," he said.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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