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Struggling ski resort industry frets over Trump’s ban on immigrant worker visas

“If you are an HR director at a ski area, you are panicking right now," said Dave Byrd, policy director for the National Ski Areas Association, referencing President Trump’s extension of an immigrant visa ban through 2020.

Kids were sledding and tubing on Vail's Pepi's Face ski just before Vail Resorts on Tuesday announced the closure of its North American ski areas for the season. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)
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The ski resort industry, reeling from early closures in March, suffered another major blow this week when President Donald Trump extended a ban on visas for immigrant workers through the end of the year. 

Citing soaring unemployment, Trump’s proclamation applies to H-1B visas used by technology companies, H-2B visas and J-1 visas. The resort industry has spent years relying on visa workers, especially J-1s, many of them college students from the southern hemisphere who spend several months at resorts teaching skiing. 

“Tourism is the hardest hit business sector from COVID-19. Throw in the fact that rural communities have been hit hard by the pandemic and our ability to open back up come November and December is really going to be strained if we don’t have a labor force to help us,” said Dave Byrd, the policy director for the 400-plus member National Ski Areas Association. “There is a huge amount of anxiety right now. If you are an HR director at a ski area, you are panicking right now.”

The NSAA’s annual report from ski areas showed 51% of more than 400 ski areas in the country unable to fill all their openings last season, well before the pandemic shut down the industry in mid-March. The average number of positions left unfilled was 44. The larger resorts were unable to fill several hundred jobs. 

Labor has been a stress point for ski areas for many years, with the skyrocketing cost of housing in rural resort communities challenging resorts large and small when it comes to filling food and beverage, lodging, housekeeping and on-mountain jobs. For years, resorts have relied on H-2B visa workers and more recently, J-1 workers to fill empty positions once taken by American college students and locals.

In the last few seasons, as unemployment rates in Colorado’s high country hit record lows, the dependence on visa workers grew even more. It’s not uncommon to see local businesses in resort towns — like restaurants — closed on Sundays and Mondays because they don’t have enough workers to remain open every night of the week. 

As resorts and mountain communities plan for the upcoming season in the era of COVID-19, they are adjusting long-standing business plans. Think: smaller groups for ski lessons, more intense cleaning and big changes in lodging, dining and gatherings. All these tweaks could require additional staff like more ski instructors, cleaners and cooks. 

In his proclamation, Trump said that, while sometimes temporary workers can benefit the economy, American workers compete against foreign nationals for jobs. 

“But under the extraordinary circumstances of the economic contraction resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak, certain nonimmigrant visa programs authorizing such employment pose an unusual threat to the employment of American workers,” Trump wrote, noting 17 million lost U.S. jobs in industries seeking H-2B visa workers and 20 million lost U.S. jobs in industries seeking H-1B visa workers. “The entry of additional workers through … nonimmigrant visa programs , therefore, presents a significant threat to employment opportunities for Americans.”  

The ski industry, Byrd said, began lobbying Congress and White House officials on Tuesday, arguing that visa worker programs support rural economies. Ski resorts in 35 of the 38 skiable states use J-1 workers, he said. The ski resort argument will be amplified by major lodging companies and national park concessionaires that also rely on visa workers, Byrd said. 

Ski resorts and lodging companies in winter-based economies typically begin the application process for H-2B and J-1 workers in July and August. The enhanced unemployment benefit of $600 a week set to expire at the end of July could be extended, which would further challenge hiring in rural communities, especially if parents are tasked with homeschooling if schools do not open with regular hours in the fall. 

“J-1s are not taking American jobs. We have tapped every single person in local communities who would be interested in taking short-term, temporary jobs. Without these workers, we are losing economic activity,” Byrd said. 

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