President Donald Trump signed a proclamation on June 22 extending the ban on several immigration visas, including the J-1 cultural exchange and H-2B temporary worker visas, which are both heavily depended upon by ski resorts. International applicants who are currently in the United States, however, are still eligible to apply. The freeze on the visas currently runs through December 31, 2020, and if it isn’t amended, will add another wrinkle into a pending ski season already facing challenges.
The proclamation cites elevated unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and “the lack of sufficient alternative means to protect unemployed Americans from the threat of competition for scarce jobs from new lawful permanent residents,” as the basis for the extension of the immigration freeze (Proclamation 10014). Ski resorts have long been dependent on these types of immigration visas to employee exchange students and other seasonal employees.
“We were surprised at the breadth and scope of the president’s proclamation—delaying entry through the end of the year when the President was talking about a V-shaped economic recovery during the summer,” says Dave Byrd, director of regulatory affairs for the National Ski Areas Association. “We were surprised, too, that the immigration suspension included visa programs like the J-1 and H-2B visa programs, which demonstrably do not displace American workers, because these are temporary, short-term seasonal positions.”
The H-2B visa program, specifically, requires businesses to prove first that they sought out and offered positions to American workers first but were unsuccessful in filling them. Ski resorts have had an increasingly difficult time filling these seasonal positions, due in large part to their remote locations—far away from metropolitan areas and centers of commerce—in addition to a lack of available and affordable housing in these areas. Even with higher unemployment and more Americans seeking jobs, there simply aren’t enough bodies in these remote hamlets to fully staff seasonal positions like lift operators, food and beverage, ski instructors, and housekeeping.
“Think of the dozens of ski areas in the sparsely populated state of Vermont, and remote resorts like Telluride, Crested Butte, Big Sky, Snowshoe, Mammoth, or even Lutsen up in far north Minnesota; those ski areas are located in counties with populations of maybe a few thousand people,” adds Byrd. “We hire every local, reliable American who wants a job, but we will still have scores of positions that go unfilled, no matter how high unemployment.”
Byrd says that these visa programs, at least when it pertains to ski resorts, do the opposite of perpetuating American unemployment. Instead, they supplement American workers and year-round and full-time American employees, “allowing resorts to fully open at fuller capacity while generating millions in local tax revenues for the rural communities where ski areas are located.”
While not all resorts are located at the back of deep box canyons or in the rural reaches of states, these ski areas will still be affected. Snowbird, for example, is located fewer than 30 miles from Salt Lake City, a metropolitan area of over 1.2 million people. Regardless, Byrd says that those looking to work would rather find it in the Salt Lake Valley than take their chances with the elemental inconveniences tied to employment in Little Cottonwood Canyon, such as frequent wintertime closures that require employees to spend the night up-canyon.
“Snowbird has for years been incredibly reliant on our H-2B and J1 visa workers,” says Snowbird communications manager, Brian Brown. “It would be to the detriment of Snowbird if we couldn’t have those visa workers come back this winter. They’re hard workers; the effort they put in contributes to the financial success of Snowbird, they love coming to the resort in the winter, and take a lot of pressure off of our human resources team to hire out of the Salt Lake Valley.”
Last November, when the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reached its cap of H2-B visa applications, meaning it would not accept any more applications for employment beginning prior to April 1, 2020, it put ski resorts looking to increase staff for the busy December holiday season in a bind.
Brown added that previous reliance on international staffing due to decreased demand from the local Salt Lake workforce was due in large part to a tight labor market in a strong economy. However, Byrd envisions the revamped COVID-19 operations requiring a similar, if not increased, labor force.
“Operations will be re-imagined to ensure safety with fewer group ski lessons; but we may actually end up needing even more ski instructors for small family-only ski lessons, for example. We likely will need more chairlift operators to ensure social distancing. With this anticipated demand, it means we will really need to be as fully staffed as possible.”
Many destination resorts, Aspen Snowmass, for example, which is situated three-and-a-half hours from the major metropolitan area of Denver, lean heavily on visa workers for their large crop of international clientele. Not only are they filling unskilled labor positions like lift operations, housekeeping, and food and beverage, but ski instructor and mountain guide roles that require fluency in languages other than English.
“If you come to Aspen and you’re putting your six-year-old in ski school and they only speak Portuguese because they’re from Brazil you’re going to want someone there who can communicate with your children,” says Jeff Hanle, director of public relations at Aspen Snowmass. “For us, it’s not only positions that need to be filled, it’s a customer service [aspect] where people feel more comfortable if they have people who can communicate with them in their own language.”
Working with the Labor Department, State Department, and Congress to implement modifications to the proclamation, the NSAA plans to challenge the decision.
“There are opportunities for periodic review by the State Department, Department of Labor, and Homeland security, we will be reaching out to them, we’ll be writing a formal letter asking for a modification,” says Byrd.
He adds that the argument made by the ski industry is undoubtedly a strong one, as the March closures of ski areas due to coronavirus, prior to spring break and Easter, resulted in over $2 billion in losses.
“About 30 percent of ski area revenues are made over the winter break, Christmas and New Year’s holidays. We cannot miss another critical time period for generating revenue due to being short-staffed, after missing the last third of season this spring,” says Byrd. “This doesn’t just impact ski areas, it impacts hundreds of rural communities across the 37 states ski areas operate in. Access to these temporary visa programs will significantly facilitate the economic recovery of ski areas and their surrounding rural communities, and we believe the White House will hear that message loud and clear.”
The 2020/21 ski season is almost assuredly going to be out of the ordinary, with increased social distancing and hygiene protocols put into place, and travel restrictions, both domestic and international, which could drastically change the usual visitor bases, especially for larger destination resorts.
“We don’t know what this coming season is going to look like; we don’t know what travel restrictions will be in place, what capacity will be allowed, or if it will be limited by people not traveling,” said Aspen Snowmass’ Hanle. “We don’t know if we’re going to have the same historic demand for workers that we have had.”
This article originally appeared on Powder.com and was republished with permission.
For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!