J-1 visa ban affecting Cape business owner

DENNISPORT, Mass. — A J-1 visa program is something that many Cape Cod businesses rely on to find enough affordable, temporary workers. But a ban on the visa is making it tough for some businesses to find enough seasonal employees in an already difficult economy during the coronavirus pandemic.

Joey’s Pizzeria is celebrating its 15th year in Dennisport. But owner Joe Werzanski is in a tough spot.

He said that expenses are up and business is down 30% because of the pandemic.

An even more immediate problem he is facing is finding employees. Much of his summer staff works through the J-1 cultural exchange visa program he said, which allows international students to work and study in the United States.

“Every year we get an influx of all of these kids that really helps aid what the Cape economy needs to operate,” Werzanski said.

In June, the Trump administration extended a ban on the J-1 visa because of the pandemic. Supporters of immigration reform applauded the move as a chance to free up 525,000 jobs to Americans. With so many Americans collecting unemployment right now, there could be plenty of people to fill those jobs.

But Werzanski said, think again.

“I actually went 7 for 7 scheduled interviews with no one showing up,” Werzanski said.

“Really the way unemployment’s set up is -- it’s human nature. Why would you go back to work when you’re going to make less money working then, you know, collecting unemployment?

“And I don’t blame the individuals -- the system really wasn’t addressed properly.”

The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce said that in a typical year, around 3,500 international students work on the Cape through the J-1 visa program.

“I don’t think the J-1 visa is feasible for this summer,” Werzanski said. “However, I would like them to try and figure out how to give incentive to get the Americans back to work.”

Joey’s Pizzeria would normally be open seven days a week in the summer, but the lack of staff forced Werzanski to close two days a week to give his current staff a break.

“In Cape Cod I have an 8- to 10-week season, tops,” Werzanski said. “Each day I’m closed is an exponential amount off the top end.”

Not only is business down because of the coronavirus, but a tree fell on Joey’s Pizzeria last summer when a tornado struck the Cape.

“This season is like a tornado hitting every week,” Werzanski said.

The extension of the J-1 visa program ban also affects Au pairs, international interns, teachers and camp counselors.

Werzanski said he is concerned this could be the final straw for a lot of Cape businesses that puts them out of business.

The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce said they are working with employers to help them adjust their business plans and seek funding for grants and loans.