In 2019, Amedeo Virga had his first experience working abroad. Except for 2020, the year of Covid-19, Virga has returned to Door County from his home country of Romania ever since.
“There is a platform with thousands of jobs available in the USA and you have to choose the one you like the most,” he explained. “I made a profile and got an offer from Open Hearth Lodge (in Sister Bay) in 2019. The second job was at Chef’s Hat (in Ephraim) and I really enjoyed working there.”
Virgo, who decided to come back to work in Door County after having a positive experience in 2019, is one of the hundreds of international workers who traveled to Door County for the 2023 tourism season.
Through his experience in 2019, he met friends who later introduced him to his current place of employment, The Village Green Lodge. This time he traveled with Cristina Girhiris, his girlfriend. It was her first time in Door County.
“I like the honesty of the job,” Girhiris said, after her first few days on the job at Village Green. “It might not be good or perfect on some days, but it’s focused on the outcome. I can choose how I do things as long as the result is what it should be.”
Many local business owners look for international workers to fill in the gap for help during the busy tourism season. Local businesses and Destination Door County have said there aren’t enough local people available to work in the area during Door County’s busiest season between April and October.
While some Door County business owners are new to the J-1 visa program—a non-immigrant visa that allows people not born in the U.S. to travel and work in the country—others have been employing international students for many seasons, such as Todd Frisoni, owner of the Door County Ice Cream Factory in Sister Bay.
Frisoni has been employing international workers since 2000, when he first bought the business.
“My high school kids are able to work weekends (after summer break) but college kids are back to college,” he said. “The international workers are the backbone of our workforce in the spring and the fall.”
Process of the J-1 visa program
According to Destination Door County, 479 international workers came to Door County on J-1 visas to work this summer.
Phil Berndt, Destination Door County’s director of advocacy, explained that the process starts well before local businesses hire or international workers set foot in the U.S.
In the U.S., there are many agency platforms available to find international employees. Abroad, there also are agencies to help fit employees with employers in the states.
Some Door County businesses help applicants through the process and support them, such as helping them build a resume and creating a profile for the program. Once a person has made a profile, they can show interest in a certain job or receive offers from employers.
Many local business owners start interviewing potential employees about a year before the season. In the interview, the employers and applicants can negotiate pay and housing before the applicant accepts a job offer.
Locally, Destination Door County helps organize events to inform host employers about their responsibilities and helps businesses get advice from those who have more experience in the program.
Since the program has been in place, there have been improvements in efficiency with the required processes, such as signing up for Social Security. Destination Door County now helps with designated Social Security sign-up days that have become more efficient, Berndt said.
Having employees is helpful for businesses, but there are challenges, such as transportation. Because Door County does not have widespread public transportation, getting from housing to work is an issue for most international employees.
Some business owners, such as Frisoni and Mike McCarthy, co-owner of The Village Green Lodge, have been able to provide housing for their employees close to their establishments. Others have collaborated with other businesses on housing.
According to McCarthy, most workers are provided bicycles by their employers. While helpful, biking as a sole way of transportation in the county might be more difficult than it seems.
“It was difficult to go from Sister Bay to Ephraim or move around the villages,” Virga said. “It was a long distance. It might look easy but riding a bike for two or three miles every day is not fun, especially after a long shift.”
The BRIDGES program is an organization of Door County residents who volunteer to provide friendship, assistance, and helpful services, such as rides to the grocery store and back, to the international students who come to work in Door County.
“To be pretty honest, it was difficult to go to the Piggly Wiggly to get groceries,” said Virga. “We were lucky because of the BRIDGES program. There were some volunteers bringing us to Sturgeon Bay, to Walmart, every two weeks or so.”
Interacting with the Door County community
Reminiscing on his time in Door County in 2019, Virga said, “Open Hearth was great. In fact, I wanted to go back to Open Hearth in 2020 because I felt so respected. Nora and John (Zacek, the owners at that time) were really nice and treated all of the employees well.
“For example, every Sunday we got a free meal from them and Nora tried to cook dishes from our countries. She helped me with my Social Security number and all of the paperwork. They gave us a travel bonus at the end of the season.”
For Door County to continue to have access to international workers, Berndt said, the county must maintain an overall enjoyment factor so that workers can tell others about their experience in a positive light.
The program aims to increase mutual understanding between people who live in the United States and people from other countries through educational and cultural exchanges that support the development of peaceful relations. It is a way to show how similar everyone is, no matter where they live, Berndt said.
“In 2019, we had meetings (organized by BRIDGES) with other international workers to do fun activities every two weeks,” Virga said. “They would take us places in the area and give us food. It gave us a chance to meet with and talk to other workers from the same or different countries. Then from your jobs—because you usually have two jobs—you get to meet other people that you work with.”
According to Destination Door County, another key factor for international workers to be successful is support from their employers. Most of the time, the employers are providing the workers with housing as well as employment, which means it’s essential to have a more personable relationship with the workers than just a typical employer-employee relationship.
The Ice Cream Factory’s Frisoni said he recognizes the challenges his international workers have to overcome and the skills that they need to travel to another country to work and succeed.
“I know I couldn’t go to any country and do a customer service job,” Frisoni said with a chuckle. “So, I try to talk to my employees. I’m always here with them and helping them.”
People applying for a J-1 visa have to meet several requirements to be accepted, and even if they pass multiple aspects of the evaluation, they can be denied in the end. Throughout the whole process, candidates need to have resilience as many parts of the process can be uncertain until they are on the job, Berndt said.
“We couldn’t function in one hundred percent capacity if we didn’t have international workers,” Frisoni said. “They are an integral part (of) the success of the county.”