The J-1 Summer Work Travel program that many aquatics managers depend on to staff their facilities each season could undergo stricter reforms – or be eliminated entirely – under the Trump administration.
The latter is a distinct possibility. A campaign promise of then-president-elect Donald Trump’s was to scrap the 50-year-old program that brings some 300,000 foreign college and university students to live and work in the U.S. each summer. Thousands come here to occupy jobs as lifeguards – in many ways the perfect seasonal gig for adventurous visa holders. What better way to experience American culture than by the side of a pool?
At the time, Trump proposed replacing it with a jobs program for American youth, the details of which have been scant. Now that he’s president, some aquatics professionals fear he might make good on that promise, hindering their ability to recruit internationally and fill jobs most young adults here don’t seem to want.
“It’s already a known fact that we are struggling to find lifeguards around the country,” said Kevin Post, principal at aquatics consulting firm Counsilman-Hunsaker. “Anything limiting our talent pool, especially staff that want to work the entire summer, is really going to hurt the industry.”
More immediate concerns, however, center on the U.S. State Dept.’s proposed changes to the existing regulations. Last month, the agency issued a proposed rulemaking that intends to preserve the integrity of the J-1 summer work program as a cultural-exchange experience and to protect the health, safety and welfare of foreign workers.
To that end, one measure takes direct aim at a controversial pool-management practice. It would bar exchange visitors from working as lifeguards at single-guard pools unless the employer provides “regular on-site or on-call supervision and reasonable time off for exchange visitor breaks and meals.”
The proposed rule comes amid intensified scrutiny of the single-guard practice. Last year, one lifeguard drowned and another was sexually assaulted, both while working alone – though neither was a foreign national.
While the proposal seems well-intentioned, industry observers say it might prove tricky for some pool management companies to comply with. One pool manager, who wished to remain anonymous, said he generally positions supervisors within 10 to 30 minutes of any pool where a single guard is stationed. He believes that approach would remain acceptable under the proposed policy. But not everyone operates that way, he said, adding that if one company were to run afoul of the law, the State Department might enforce even tighter restrictions.
It also could make scheduling more difficult. For especially large firms that hire 1,000-plus employees and oversee hundreds of pools, it could be easy to accidentally assign a solo shift to an exchange visitor at a location where help isn’t immediately available.
Another industry insider said such a change could adversely affect the safety of swimmers. Under the new policy, some management companies might feel compelled to staff each pool with two lifeguards, driving up costs for HOAs and apartment complexes that typically employ only one guard per pool. They might opt out of having lifeguards altogether as a result.
Other potential amendments may also prove challenging. One of the State Dept.’s suggested measures demands that employers provide workers with “no less than 32-hours and no more than 65-hours of permissible work per calendar week ...” averaged over a two-week period. Where the industry could run into problems is early in the season when many pools and waterparks operate on limited schedules while schools are still in session. Therefore, it might be difficult to guarantee exchange visitors at least 32 hours, one pool manager said.
Another proposal intends to limit the amount of time exchange visitors can spend on janitorial and custodial tasks. The amendment states that such tasks should comprise no more than 5 percent of hours worked. Post said it’s not uncommon for resort lifeguards to spend a fair amount of time on unrelated duties such as washing towels and picking up after guests. “It’s not an optimal situation,” he said. “A guard should be focused on guarding, but it does happen.” That means if the proposed rule becomes law, the onus will be on managers to carefully monitor and track how much time foreign employees spend on certain tasks, he added.
Much of the department’s list of suggested reforms, however, more directly affect the sponsoring organizations which arrange for employment and housing needs. The new rule would place more responsibility on them to ensure exchange visitors are treated fairly, have adequate accommodations and opportunities for cultural experiences. Employers could expect more scrutiny as a result.
The movement toward a more stringent policy comes after the department received a number of complaints about substandard housing, poor working conditions and a lack transportation options. In recent years, several foreigners on work visas were struck dead on U.S. highways trying to bike to and from work.
The State Department is accepting public comment on the proposed rule until Feb. 27.