Utah ski resorts worry a Trump visa decision may leave them shorthanded

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) A skier heads up the hill to the lifts at Brighton on Jan. 1, 2018.

Among the first questions President Donald Trump asked Colorado Gov. Jared Polis during a White House meeting in May was how ski resorts were holding up after having their spring cut short by COVID-19.

“How about, ‘cause I go there, as you know, and the ski slopes are fantastic ...,” Trump said. “How are you doing with the skiing? It’s a big business for you.”

Not two months later, Trump handed a ski industry already wrangling with how to safely reopen this winter an additional entanglement. On June 22, the president suspended most foreign worker visas through year’s end. That included the temporary J-1 and H-2B visas that many resorts, including most Utah ski areas, have turned to for decades to bolster their workforce.

The move was painted as a way to protect U.S. jobs as unemployment has skyrocketed. Yet even if Americans sign up in droves, resorts still may not have enough workers to confidently step into the great unknown that is the 2020-21 ski season.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” said Natalie Ooi, director of the ski area management program at Colorado State University. “It’s kind of a double whammy.”

“What’s going to be a struggle,” she said, “is I would say even more of those [ski resorts] will even have a greater staffing need this upcoming season because of all the additional health and safety requirements that are going to have to be put in place” for COVID-19.

If the way people have stampeded to the hills, parks and lakes during the pandemic is any indication, those in the ski industry expect an unprecedented demand for snow sports this winter. They’d like to embrace that onslaught while still keeping their business and their communities protected from COVID-19. That could mean changes to the way tickets are purchased and distributed, how gear rentals are handled, and how many can ride a chairlift or enter a cafeteria, bar or warming hut. It will certainly also mean more cleaning.

All of that takes a workforce, and resorts were struggling to find the employees to fill their positions even before the virus hit and temporary worker visas were suspended.

“It’s not going to mean a ski area cannot open,” said David Byrd, the National Ski Areas Association’s director of risk and regulatory affairs, “but it is going to mean diminished staff, diminished safety, diminished guest services and diminished operational efficiencies.”

Grunt work

J-1 visas were developed after World War II as a type of reverse Peace Corps meant to counter anti-American propaganda and promote cultural exchanges. They allow people to come to the United States to study or to work as, among other things, au pairs, camp counselors and teachers. In 2011, three years after J-1 visas hit an all-time high of 152,726, the Obama administration capped the number of participants at 109,000.

The Summer Work Travel visa is the type of J-1 typically held by ski resort employees. It is issued to college students and allows them to stay in the U.S. between three months and a year.

For 20-somethings from the Southern Hemisphere looking for an adventure, towns with ski resorts can be alluring destinations. The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) estimates ski areas employ 7,000 to 8,000 J-1 seasonal workers each winter, making up between 7% and 10% of the workforce at resorts that hire them. Thousands more, meanwhile, find work with other businesses within resort towns. Some are employed as lift operators, others work at the front desks of hotels, as waiters or dishwashers in restaurants and as salespeople at souvenir shops.

J-1s must be paid the same as American workers in similar jobs. Because they are here as part of a cultural exchange, however, their paychecks might go toward souvenirs and experiences unique to the United States. It also goes to their lodging, which is typically a hotel room shared with several roommates because of the high cost of living in most resort towns.

Their grunt-work nature, relatively low pay and seasonality have traditionally meant these aren’t the types of jobs U.S. workers are seeking. That’s been particularly true in recent years, when Utah’s pre-pandemic unemployment rate dipped below 2%. A NSAA report showed 51% of the roughly 470 ski resorts in the nation couldn’t fill all their positions last year even before the coronavirus hit. The average number of vacant positions per resort was 44.

Due to the fallout from COVID-19, Utah’s jobless rate in June was 5.1% and the nation’s was 11%. So resorts may have more success finding locals willing to fill those roles, especially if it means also getting a free ski pass.

Todd Shallan, the president and chief operating officer of Deer Valley Resort, said that’s his expectation.

“The need [for foreign workers] is going to be far less — if at all,” Shallan said during a roundtable discussion with Park City Mayor Andy Beerman in June. “I think with the unemployment rate the way it is, and it probably won’t improve substantially before we open for the winter season. I mean some businesses will open, some people will go back to work, but I would imagine we would go into the winter season seeing a regional unemployment rate at the 5% to 6% range, which certainly changes the picture of what we went through last year when it was at 1.9%.”

Deer Valley has a long history of hiring Summer Work Travel visa holders. It employed close to 300 in 2017, but that’s just a fraction of the J-1s who work in and around Park City each winter.

Last year, Park City and Kimball Junction hosted nearly 2,000 J-1 visa holders combined, according to State Department records. That’s two-thirds of the 4,787 J-1 visa holders employed in Utah in all of 2019. According to Byrd, the Park City community ranks among the largest employers of J-1 visa holders nationwide.

That’s too many jobs for the local workforce to fill, even now, Byrd said. He argues that even with a large pool of prospective employees nearby in Salt Lake City, too many repelling factors exist. Some prospective employees will be content with their unemployment benefits, he said. Others will be averse to traveling the canyons daily to work at places like Snowbird and Alta. If schools return to online learning this fall and parents have to stay home with their kids, that would take other potential employees out of the market.

As Byrd said, “Ski area jobs cannot be done remotely.”

Many local workers also just don’t have the skills ski resorts are seeking. Each winter, the ski industry hires about 1,300 H-2B visa holders, according to a NSAA survey of its member resorts. H-2B visas holders have special skills, and at ski resorts they typically work as ski instructors or in snowmaking or grooming.

These issues don’t just affect the resorts along the Wasatch Front. Utah’s more remote resorts, such as Brian Head, Eagle Point and Powder Mountain, are dealing with those same deterrents as well as a more sparsely populated worker pool.

“People always ask, ‘Why can’t you recruit here?’ And I say, ‘We are, but we can’t get enough,’” Emily Vanderhoof, the former human resources director at Powder Mountain, told Powder Magazine in 2019, the first year the resort turned to foreign workers to shore up an employee shortage. “When you need 400 to 500 people to work for the winter, that’s a large burden on hiring and recruiting. The J-1s are still just one piece of the puzzle.”

Byrd agrees: “Even with higher unemployment, we’re hearing from so many ski areas that even if they don’t need as many [foreign workers], they still need them.”

For that reason, the NSAA plans to file a formal request in the coming weeks for Trump to modify his decision, pulling it back a month. That should give resorts time to bring in J-1 and H-2B workers before the beginning of the bustling holiday season, which Byrd said accounts for 20% to 25% of most ski resorts’ annual revenue. It’s also an effort to prevent any possible extension of the visa suspension.

The NSAA has been working with Congress to put pressure on the president. Byrd has met with Utah Reps. Chris Stewart and Rob Bishop, Sen. Mitt Romney and Gov. Gary Herbert.

In 2017, when Trump first raised the specter of suspending the foreign worker visa programs, a Senate appropriations committee voted 31-0 to oppose the restrictions.

Travel travails

Even if Trump agrees to the visa modification, resorts still expect to face difficulties with filling their staffs. In addition to the deterrents faced by American workers, the foreign workforce faces numerous hurdles.

The U.S. has several travel bans in place that would restrict potential workers, such as those from Brazil, from coming into the country. Workers from other countries, meanwhile, are opting not to visit the U.S. because of its own escalating number of COVID-19 cases or because they would face a 14-day quarantine upon their return.

Vicki Kenny is the CEO of International Working Holidays, which coordinates J-1 workers from New Zealand with employers in other countries, including Deer Valley. She said 90% of people who applied to work in the U.S. on J-1s have canceled their applications.

If a workforce shortage and COVID-19 concerns weren’t enough to derail the upcoming season, ski resorts also face an age-old question: Will there be snow?

Most in the industry agree that even if Mother Nature doesn’t come through, the snow must go on — via snowmaking systems if necessary — and the resorts will open. It may be slower and clunkier and more limited without the help of foreign workers, but that may just be the new normal.

“Ski areas are super creative,” said Ski Utah President and CEO Nathan Rafferty. “If there’s a way to get it done, they’ll do it. No question.”

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