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J1 visa shortage is slowing down business in Door County

Posted at 11:17 PM, Jun 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-22 00:17:45-04

DOOR COUNTY, Wis. (NBC 26) -- A year after covid restrictions brought the tourism industry to a halt, Door County is bracing for a record year but a staffing shortage has left local businesses scrambling to find enough help to accommodate flooding tourists.

Travelers coming in to soak up the lake culture in Sister Bay will be met by a staffing shortage that is changing the way many local hot spots do business.

"For inside we would normally be open for dinner but I really think that's cooks. We just don't have enough cooks," says Kit Butz of Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant.

Al Johnson's is one of many local spots changing traditions to compensate for a lack of employees.

The reason for the changes is due to major delays in the J1 Visa program that supplies businesses with international employees for the summer season.

Closed embassies and travel restrictions have resulted in only a fraction of the J1 employees who will make it across the border this year.

"A lot of times what will happen is that they're just not here in one place so they may work two maybe three jobs so they really fill an important roll here to make sure our tourism industry can be well-staffed," Butz adds.

Butz says Al Johnsons was forced to be more aggressive in recruiting new workers at the restaurant this summer.

"We are waiting for our college kids to sort of get out of college because that’s who we sort of filled in with for the J1 visa workers." Butz also says they were able to fill most of the worker shortage caps and says they are ready to take on a heavy tourist season.

Al Johnsons and many businesses that dot the shoreline in Door County have struggled to find enough workers for the summer.

Door County typically employs 500 J1 students from across the globe. This year that number was cut nearly in half to 280, according to Destination Door County.

The drop in employment has forced businesses to cut back leading to longer and slower service.

"We are really asking folks to be patient while they're out there this summer," says Jon Jarosh, interim CEO of Destination Door County.

"Everybody is trying to do their best and serve our visitors as best we can to provide a great Door County experience."

"If anything the last year taught us is to be a little more flexible," adds Kit Butz of Al Johnsons. "As far as staffing or somebody that a J1 would traditionally fill the role we are set and ready to go."

To help through this unusual travel season, experts say to plan ahead.

"Try to make as many advanced reservations as you can. Not necessarily just for your lodging but if there is an activity you want to see or do or a show you might want to see, really try to make those reservations before you get here if you can. That will just help to make sure you get to do what you want to do," Jarosh says. "Planning ahead will go a long way to make sure you have the kind of a getaway to Door County that you want."