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Hundreds of international workers at Colorado ski resorts are in limbo as countries close borders, airlines cancel flights

“It’s not that we want to stay. We just can’t leave,” says a ski instructor from Argentina who is among hundreds of J-1 and H-2B visa workers trapped in resort towns unable to get home.

Anabella Panessi visits with fellow Argentinian ski instructors at Aspen's Burlingame housing complex in April. Panessi was among hundreds of J1 and H-2B visa workers stuck in resort areas waiting for flights and opened borders to return home. President Trump in June issued a proclamation that banned temporary work visas, stifling resorts that have long relied on the the J-1 visa exchange program. (Provided by Ana Panessi)
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When Gov. Jared Polis ordered the state’s ski areas to close on March 14, he also launched Ana Panessi into a frantic race to get home. It was a race she did not win. 

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“So many people, they were able to run away very quickly. We did not have the same opportunity. So we are waiting,” said Panessi, who has traveled from her home in Argentina’s Patagonia to Aspen on a J-1 exchange visa for six winters to teach skiing for Aspen Skiing Co.

Today Panessi is among hundreds of international ski resort workers on J-1 and H2B visas who are stuck in limbo across the West. As ski resorts suddenly shuttered in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the thousands of temporary international workers who keep ski resorts humming in midwinter were able to get on flights before airlines canceled service and their home countries closed borders. 

But many remain, huddling in company housing without jobs. They spend their days talking to consulates and embassies, working with resort companies and visa exchange agencies and, of course, getting outdoors in quiet mountain towns. 

It can seem idyllic at some moments. Other times, it is very stressful as the workers negotiate extensions to visas, fight for refunds for canceled flights, try to reschedule flights with airlines that are not flying internationally and work with their home countries to arrange mandatory quarantines whenever borders are opened.  

Ana Panessi hangs out at the closed golf course near her housing complex in Aspen. (Provided to The Colorado Sun)

In Colorado, Vail Resorts and Aspen Skiing Co. have been able to get several hundred of their J-1 and H-2B workers home. But hundreds remain. 

“Our lease is to the end of April, but we heard yesterday that we can stay here until the end of May,” said Panessi, who is one of about 20 J-1 visa ski instructors from Argentina stuck in Aspen. “We are very lucky to be here. We know that. But some of us do not have any money left. We want to go back home to Argentina. That is our biggest wish. We want to be with our families.”

Aspen Skiing Co. has waived rent for its international J-1 workers and has helped most of them arrange their trips back home. The company also is helping the remaining workers with expenses as they wait for their home borders to open, company spokesman Jeff Hanle said. 

Vail Resorts has about 100 international employees waiting in Eagle and Summit counties, for borders to open. In the past three weeks the company has helped 1,900 international workers get home. 

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“Because of certain border controls and travel restrictions, it has been difficult, if not temporarily impossible, for some of our employees to return home,” Vail Resorts spokesman Ryan Huff said. 

Like Aspen Skiing Co., Vail Resorts is providing housing and support to remaining workers. 

Alterra Mountain Co.’s Winter Park ski area has 16 international workers waiting to get home. The company’s Steamboat resort has 11 J-1 visa workers remaining, eight of whom are scheduled to leave on April 15. 

Fernando Vinals has spent 10 winters teaching skiing and training ski instructors at Alterra’s  Squaw Valley ski area in California. He works on a H-2B visa. Like Panessa, he was unable to quickly arrange a flight to his home in Bariloche, Argentina, when the resort closed on March 14. 

He said many of his friends paid exorbitant prices for flights home in the few days after the ski areas closed. Vinals said they were buying new tickets without getting refunded for existing tickets. 

“We were feeling abused by the prices they wanted to charge us,” said Vinals, who is with about a dozen other workers from Argentina. “If we are not allowed to get back home before May, our visas will expire and we will be here illegally. We are trying to apply for a different visa, but the fee is high. It’s not that we want to stay, we just can’t leave. We are stuck.”

He has spent his days since calling airlines and the Argentinian consulate in Los Angeles. 

“There is no agreement between the countries and the airlines. The country will say one thing and the airline will say another. We don’t know who to believe,” said Vinals, who is staying rent-free in worker housing in Squaw Valley. 

California’s CCUSA helps businesses connect with J-1 Exchange Visitors. In the winter, the agency largely works with ski resorts and operators, like Vail Resorts, directing thousands of international students, most coming from South America, into ski area jobs. 

The exchanges typically end in the last half of March, when summer break ends for college students in the southern hemisphere. Fariba Hicks, a vice-president for CCUSA’s work program in the U.S., has spent the last month working with embassies and airlines to arrange flights for J-1 workers who have not been able to get home. With commercial airlines idling international flights, she is working with Argentina, Ecuador and Peru to charter humanitarian flights for their residents stuck in American resort communities. She has arranged for several hundred J-1 workers to get home but hundreds remain in limbo.

“We have been working closely with foreign governments and we have had some success,” Hicks said. “Everyone is doing everything they can, but at the end of the day, the borders are closed and that is our issue.”

A skier shreds between lifts at Vail Mountain on December 18, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

“This all happened very suddenly for everyone,” Hicks said, describing how some of her J-1 exchange visitors were at the airport ready to fly home when airlines canceled flights as borders closed. “Every day, every hour even, we are in contact with various embassies and foreign governments. We are so grateful for companies like Vail and host communities across the West who are incredibly supportive in allowing these J-1 visitors to remain.”

In the United States, return flights organized by South American embassies are prioritizing children, elderly citizens and the ill. Healthy young resort workers in ski towns are not high on the list. 

“I talk with my family every day and they tell me when the frontier opens we are not going to be the first people who are allowed back,” said Panessi, the worker who is stuck in Aspen. “I understand that. At a certain point I am very proud of my country and the position it is taking with the frontier closures. But at the same time, I worry because the health system in Argentina has been very damaged over the last four years.”


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