Finding qualified lifeguards is one of the biggest challenges to running a safe facility. One avenue for achieving this is international recruiting.

Though this method has many benefits, it requires a great deal of work. The process is fraught with difficulties that have even left some employers stranded without labor at the last minute.

The two main options for lifeguards are the J-1 Visa

program and the H-2B visa program. Both are sponsored by the U.S. State Department, but they are drastically different in their setups and applications.

Understanding those differences will help determine which is best for your facility, and how to steer clear of trouble.

The J-1 Visa program’s purpose is to provide foreign post- secondary students exposure to life in the United States through travel and temporary work for a period of four months, according to the State Department Web site’s “frequently asked questions” section.

The program is administered through sponsors who are designated by the State Department. Participants must be post- secondary students and actively pursuing a degree. Individual nations are asked to limit the number of students who return for multiple years to 10 percent of their total number.

J-1 Visa participants generally spend their time in the United States in some combination of work and travel time. Time frames when they can visit this country can vary.

European and Northern Hemisphere countries generally come in the summer, and Southern Hemisphere countries, including those in South America, come in the winter.

Companies that participate in the J-1 Visa program see many benefits, among them a willing and available work force, and the opportunity to experience different cultures through visiting students. The program is very stable; however, it has experienced some challenges in the past few years. With the formation of the European Union, it is now easier to travel to other countries in the EU. A falling dollar vs. world currency also has decreased the amount of money that students can make.

The H-2B visa category is for temporary nonagricultural workers. The time frame of the visa can vary from several months up to one year, and two one-year extensions are allowed. The visas can be issued for seasonal needs, one-time needs or peak load needs. The application must be filed by employers, who are required to demonstrate that they have temporary needs. 

The H-2B program has presented many challenges for employers who decide to participate. Congress has enacted stricter limits on the number of available visas and has failed to provide a reasonable alternative for employers.

Many seasonal industries, such as ski and resort areas, landscaping and construction, rely on the H-2B program. At present, 66,000 visas are reserved for this category.

In 2005, Congress passed what was known as the “Save Our Small and Seasonal Business Act.” This law exempts workers who were previously program participants from counting against the cap. This was a huge relief for employers because many participants return year after year, so it freed up a large number of visas, making them available for new participants and easing the burden on employers.

With the exemption in place, the State Department says it was able to grant more than 71,000 visas in 2006.

The current issue with the H-2B program is that the Save our Small and Seasonal Business Act expired in September 2007, and Congress has been unable to pass legislation to extend it, or to come up with another viable alternative. This means there is no returning worker exemption, and employers can no longer count on returning an experienced seasonal work force using the program.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced that the cap for the H-2B program was reached on Jan. 3, 2008. This news was unprecedented in its timing because the program was effectively shut down, for no new visa applications could be processed after that date. It left many employers stranded, forcing some businesses to shut down, and causing extreme hardship for others, who could not find enough workers to fill the needed positions.

At the time of this writing, the cap for the first half of 2009 was reached on July 29, 2008. It means USCIS will not accept any new petitions for workers seeking start dates prior to April 1, 2009.

Currently, employers affected by this law are banding together and working with Congress to try to find a solution to the dilemma. These employers are working with the Save Our Small Business organization to reach elected representatives to try fix the problem.