Why U.S. Employers Like the J-1 Visa Program


Ever wondered why it seems during the summer that some local lifeguards or amusement park workers often have foreign accents? There is a good chance that they hold J-1 summer work and travel visas, a State Department program that allows college students worldwide to work in the U.S. for up to four months in the summer.

The J-1 work and travel initiative, founded during the Cold War to be a “people-to-people diplomacy program that engages young people from around the world with a goal of fostering mutual understanding,” is a major hit with employers across the country. More than 90,000 students visited the U.S. in 2014 to participate in the program, the State Department said.

A big reason why U.S. businesses like employing J-1 visa holders: Significant savings in payroll taxes.

While employers are obligated to pay J-1 participants at least the federal hourly minimum wage, they are exempt from paying Social Security, Medicare and federal unemployment tax contributions, unlike U.S. residents. Additionally, the foreign workers in the summer work and travel program must come to the U.S. with competent English-language skills and are obligated to stay with an employer for the duration of their stay.  U.S. employers need to contact a designated sponsor organization to participate in the program.

The advantage of hiring foreign workers over local workers has not gone unnoticed by the State Department, unions and labor-rights groups. The State Department, for example, increased regulations and limited the type of work for J-1 participants because the program should be more benefitting of cultural exchanges than business profit. There also have been union protests and claims of worker abuse.

Employers, however, have increased employment of those holding J-1 work and travel visas.

In Florida, for example, which is home to plenty of theme parks and pools that require lifeguards, more than 6,300 foreign students were granted J-1 visas in 2014, up from 1,500 in 2010.  

One day, perhaps, the young person checking your pool pass may do so in another language and reply merci beaucoup, danke, muchas gracias or xie xie.

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