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Few local businesses are not actively seeking employees along Main Street in Breckenridge on Saturday, October 16, 2021. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

As the first snow of the season covers the high country, Colorado’s ski resorts are starting their search for thousands of workers in what many say is an unprecedented labor crisis. 

Housing continues to be the albatross for ski resort employers. It was a challenge before the pandemic.

“But now it’s gone from ‘very difficult’ to ‘absolutely critical’ stage right now,” said Jim Laing, the head of human resources for Aspen Skiing Co.  

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

Resort-area real estate prices continue to set records, driven by urbanites who fled cities for mountain communities during the height of the pandemic. More homeowners are renting their mountain-town properties to growing numbers of travelers, pinching the availability of homes for working locals. 

For several months, employers in resort areas have struggled to hire and retain workers. Restaurants are limiting hours. Construction projects are getting delayed for months, if not years. The “help wanted” ads in local papers exponentially outnumber the rare “for rent” ads. 

Ski resorts are hoping for a revival of the J-1 visa program that ferries students from the southern hemisphere to Colorado to fill seasonal jobs. Last year, the number of J1 visa workers coming to Colorado during their summer break fell by 97%. 

Last year, a mere 214 of those summer-breaking J-1 workers arrived in Colorado, down from 6,855 in 2019.  

The lingering COVID travel ban on both visitors and workers from 33 countries will be lifted in November, which bodes well for ski area operators like Vail Resorts, Aspen Snowmass and Alterra Mountain Co, which draw a lot of international vacationers and employ hundreds of J-1 visa workers. The Trump Administration’s ban on visa workers also stymied the flow of J-1 workers in 2019 and 2020. 

That foreign worker ban is gone and resorts are waiting for U.S. embassies in those 33 countries to start processing J-1 visas when the travel ban is fully lifted in November. That makes for a tight turnaround for resorts hoping to have J-1 workers on the job by the end of the year. 

The students from South America, Australia and Europe are lining up for jobs in Colorado, said Fariba Hicks, a vice president with Camp Counselors USA, which sponsors more than 15,000 J-1 students from 40 countries, many coming to work at American ski areas.  

“Interest is really high,” she said. “People have been quarantined and locked down worldwide, so the desire to travel and experience this program is at an all-time high.”

Hicks, who connects Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Co. with seasonal workers, said it’s not just U.S. resort-area employers who are eager for staff this  winter. 

“It’s not even specific to the U.S.,” she said. “This is a worldwide issue, but the good news is there is huge interest in the program as long as we can continue to process visas and connect exchange workers with jobs, we will have a good winter season.”

Aspen Skiing needs about 4,000 workers for its four Roaring Fork Valley ski areas, hotels and restaurants. About 2,500 of those are long-term employees, including more than 500 who have worked for the company for more than 20 years. But Laing needs to hire about 1,500 seasonal workers every year. 

The applications for jobs are piling up, Laing said. But it’s impossible to house that many workers. Aspen Skiing last spring opened an $18 million apartment complex for workers near Basalt. The all-electric Hub has about 150 bedrooms in 43 units. 

But even with the new units, Aspen Skiing will have fewer beds to offer workers than in previous seasons “because there is no free market housing to rent.”

Laing said if a 500-bedroom complex suddenly appeared in his valley, he’d have it filled by the time lifts start turning. 

So, aside from praying for a miracle apartment delivery, Laing is reaching out to locals. He did the same thing last year when his J-1 workers evaporated. College kids, sitting out a semester or studying from home, helped fill empty positions. Now he’s reaching out to locals again. 

“What can we do to entice locals to support the efforts here?” Laing said. “Maybe by offering a bed or their own time and service for pay and benefits. How can we get them engaged to maybe help out in peak times?”

Last year those locals saved resorts, with local college kids stepping into jobs typically filled by visa workers or the waves of younger workers who typically flock to ski towns every winter.

Housing for workers has emerged as the most challenging hurdle for employers in resort towns. And resorts are spending big on housing. Copper Mountain offers subsidized housing for 45% of its workforce. Last year the Powdr-owned resort opened the first building of its Sky Chutes Landing project and another building will open later this year, offering 44 furnished apartments for full-time, year-round employees. 

Help wanted signs in the windows of businesses in Crested Butte, Colorado on Saturday August 14, 2021. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Arapahoe Basin hired an employee to do nothing but search Summit County for housing for workers. The resort, which also raised base pay for all its workers, is master leasing properties from local homeowners and filling them with workers who pay discounted rents. The ski area has more room available for employees than it did before the pandemic, said Arapahoe Basin spokesman Jesse True.  

Every ski resort is increasing pay and perks this season. Vail Resorts this summer raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour. Worker pay is the largest investment the company is making heading into the 2021-22 ski season. North America’s largest ski area operator also announced it was offering paid sick-time for full-time seasonal workers and increasing other benefits and perks for workers.

Vail Resorts isn’t alone in raising its pay. Businesses all over Colorado are raising wages, especially in mountain towns. Target is starting workers at $19.50 in Silverthorne. Entry-level positions at the soon-to-open TJ Maxx and Sierra Trading Post stores in the town’s Summit Place shopping center pay $17-$19 an hour. (Retailer TJX offers $13.32 per hour to start at its Front Range TJ Maxx and Sierra stores.) 

Colorado’s minimum wage is $12.32 per hour, which bumps to $12.56 in 2022.

“Competition is fierce. Everyone is really understaffed right now,” said Amy Manka, a councilwoman for Silverthorne in Summit County, where Vail Resorts is hiring hundreds of workers for its Breckenridge and Keystone resorts. 

Restaurants and retail stores in Summit County, like many resort communities, are cutting services and hours due to a lack of workers. Vail Resorts has spent millions on housing for workers at its resorts, and now other mountain town businesses — hotels, restaurants, hospitals and even town governments — are buying properties to house workers. Once the top perk for ski resort operators luring workers, housing is now a more widespread benefit.

“A lot of people are talking about how Vail Resorts is going to find all the workers they need,” Manka said. “What services are the resorts going to cut? It seems like this is trickling down to so many positions. How far can they go before they can’t open a lift or can’t open terrain or can’t shuttle people from parking lots?”

Vail Resorts this season debuted a new position called “resort associate,” which the company defines as ​​”work across multiple jobs to follow the guest experience.” Aspen Skiing also is reshuffling what Laing called “job composition.” 

“In the spirit of the mom-and-pop resort,” he said, maybe employees will work the rental shop in the morning, getting visitors geared up before heading up the hill to prepare lunch or bump chairs. 

“Then after the lunch rush, they can take a few runs. It’s a generalist position rather than a specialist,” he said. “Employees follow the guests. We are looking at every option without compromising the guest experience.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy.