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Trump’s ban on visa workers breathes new life into college-age ski bumming in Colorado’s resort towns

Ski area operators are reporting a surge in applications from college students and locals as hiring strategies, operational plans shift in the pandemic.

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Anabella Panessi, left, an Argentinian ski instructor worked for Aspen Skiing Co. last winter and was among hundreds of J1 and H-2B visa workers stuck in U.S. resort areas after the pandemic cancelled flights and closed borders in March. President Trump in June issued a proclamation that banned temporary work visas, stifling resorts that have long relied on the J-1 visa exchange program. (Provided by Ana Panessi)

EAGLE — Mia Conley was all set for her first year of college at Colorado State University. 

But the graduate of Eagle Valley High School deferred her acceptance in July, after finding out all but one of her classes were going to be online. She’s decided to get a job near home and attend Colorado Mountain College to complete college credits at a fraction of the cost.

“I thought about taking a gap year all through high school. It’s always been in the back of my mind, but I wasn’t going to do it but now I have the opportunity,” the avid skier said. “Maybe I’ll travel. Do some school wherever there’s Wi-Fi. Absolutely I’ll do some skiing. I’m taking this whole thing as a blessing.”

Ski resorts are counting Conley and her not-quite-campus-bound peers as a blessing, too. College kids are filling a critical gap for resort companies that need hundreds or even thousands of seasonal workers. And with President Donald Trump’s June 22 executive order that paused all foreign-worker visas to expand opportunities for American workers, the challenge of landing seasonal workers has grown for ski areas that have long struggled to fill positions in remote — and pricey — mountain communities. 

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“This is something that is keeping us all up at night right now. Trying to fill positions without an international pool of applicants is a little concerning, but we think we can replace them domestically,” said Jim Laing, the head of human resources for Aspen Skiing Co., which typically hires about 400 J-1 exchange visa workers every season. “Our applications from college kids are up pretty significantly over prior years. We are targeting college-age applicants, but they seem to be targeting us as well. That’s a bright light in this mess.”

Mountain and rural resorts for years have relied on a steady stream of J-1 exchange visa workers from South America, Australia and New Zealand to staff ski schools, hotels and mountain operations. 

August and September are big months for resort companies as they ramp up for the coming ski season with job fairs in far-flung locales recruiting thousands of young workers who can come to the U.S. on the J-1 exchange visas. But the executive order upended those plans.

Last month, a diverse group of businesses and organizations — including several ski resort operators — filed a pair of lawsuits challenging the executive order. The main argument in the lawsuits is that Trump overstepped his authority, ignoring federal legislation that allows temporary worker visas to help businesses. (Trump argues that under federal immigration law, he has the emergency authority to restrict immigration if he concludes foreign entry is detrimental to the interests of the U.S. The visa programs, he says, have worsened the country’s struggle to reduce high unemployment in the pandemic.)

An online petition asking for exceptions to the ban on J-1 workers has gathered more than 5,000 signatures. The Alliance for International Exchange has gathered a diverse collection of businesses and members to lobby for J-1 workers as part of its “Save the J-1” campaign.

Those lawsuits, as well recent guidance by the U.S. State Department that allows exceptions under the visa ban, give the ski resort industry some hope that J-1 workers could arrive at ski areas by January or February. A hearing is set for Aug. 27 in federal court in Washington, D.C. — before a judge who has ruled against Trump’s executive orders involving issues other than immigration. 

Fariba Hicks is the vice-president for Camp Counselors USA, which every year sponsors more than 15,000 international workers — typically college students — at five- to six-month jobs at ski resorts, summer camps and other seasonal businesses. Many of those businesses have struggled in the pandemic, and Trump’s order, Hicks said, “has made a bad situation so much worse.”

“The tip of this iceberg has been presented as a way to save American jobs, but this is not what is happening beneath the surface,” said Hicks, noting the maximum number of short-term foreign workers allowed into the country under the immigrant visa programs is 500,000 a year. The J-1 Exchange Visitor Program, for example, accepts 300,000 workers from 200 countries, including 11,1331 in Colorado. 

“That is not enough to save American jobs, and these international workers actually create new jobs. If a resort can’t open without J-1 workers, even more American jobs are lost,” Hicks said. “So this presidential proclamation is actually doing the opposite of what the president is presenting.”

The mountain resort industry is expecting pent-up demand for skiing this winter and will be closely watching the lawsuits and challenges to Trump’s order.

A chairlift carries skiers and snowboarders at Big Sky Resort in Montana in February 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“Look, Congress has already said by passing this visa legislation that temporary seasonal foreign workers are important to local economies and seasonal businesses, especially in rural areas far from larger pools of labor — and the support is hugely bipartisan,” said Dave Byrd, the  head of regulatory affairs for the 300-resort National Ski Areas Association. “We think given the extraordinary breadth of the immigration ban on seasonal workers — without giving any opportunity for stakeholders to chime in on an industry’s unique needs for temporary workers — there’s a strong chance the courts will enjoin the president’s executive order.” 

In the meantime, resort operators are adjusting their hiring strategies to focus on locals and college students who may be sitting out a semester or studying from home. Ski areas are blanketing social media with specific ads targeting young adults in resort regions who may be sticking around for a semester or two. 

And those college kids seem to be answering the call.

The return of college students to the resort area workforce harkens to a bygone era of ski bumming, when young adults spent winters or gap years working in resort communities. As the cost of housing grew alongside the increasing reliance on foreign workers, the ski bum culture that animated resort towns for decades began to fade.

Vail Resorts is finding more college students in resort communities responding to its call for workers at its dozens of North American ski areas. 

“We have already ramped up winter season recruiting efforts and have been pleased with the results so far,” said Vail Resorts spokesman Ryan Huff. “We have found interest among students who have more flexibility now due to online learning or deferring college attendance for a year. And our employees from prior seasons are also showing enthusiasm to return.”

Resorts are setting up all kinds of plans for what certainly will be an atypical ski season. Most of those plans involve the need for additional workers to help control crowds, clean and nudge visitors toward new pandemic protocols.

Skiers line up — in socially distant fashion — to get on a lift at Arapahoe Basin on May 27, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Even if the court does suspend Trump’s ban on visa workers, the challenges for the resort industry are plentiful as operators plan for potentially limited access and significant changes to lodging and dining. And even if ski areas can suddenly hire temporary workers from other countries, that process could be muddled by pandemic-curtailed operations at foreign embassies and U.S. immigration bureaucracies. 

“Think about where ski areas are typically located: remote, rural areas, with challenging housing markets and costs, and working in a seasonal job for five or six months,” Byrd said. “With enhanced unemployment benefits and underlying COVID concerns in any workplace, we need to be able to hire as many people as we can. Unless the immigration ban is further loosened or overturned, these restrictions on seasonal foreign workers are going to have a significant and detrimental impact on the ski communities’ abilities to recover economically.” 

Rising Sun