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Ski resorts struggle to hire amid Trump's student visa ban

But on June 22, President Trump signed an executive order temporarily barring a wide variety of foreign worker visas, including J-1 visas often issued to South American students who come to North America during their summer break.

PTI | Denver | Updated: 30-09-2020 15:25 IST | Created: 30-09-2020 15:10 IST
Ski resorts struggle to hire amid Trump's student visa ban
Image Credit: Flickr

Milagros Sotelo was looking forward to travelling from South America to Tennessee to start a job at Ober Gatlinburg ski resort this winter. The 22-year-old student worked the last two ski seasons in the equipment rental shop at the small resort nestled in the Smoky Mountains and was excited to reconnect with friends, practice her English and take a break from law school in Lima, Peru, where she lives. But on June 22, President Trump signed an executive order temporarily barring a wide variety of foreign worker visas, including J-1 visas often issued to South American students who come to North America during their summer break. Sotelo's plans were put on hold, and now she's scrambling to find a job closer to home.

As ski resorts try to figure out how to operate safely during the coronavirus pandemic, by requiring facemasks, enforcing social distancing in lift lines and eliminating dine-in service, Trump's order has added another obstacle heading into the winter: hiring enough temporary workers to fill crucial jobs like operating chair lifts, serving food and cleaning hotel rooms. Trump argued foreigners pose a risk to American workers as the country tries to jumpstart its economy.

"American workers compete against foreign nationals for jobs in every sector of our economy, including against millions of aliens who enter the United States to perform temporary work," according to the order, which is set to expire at the end of the year. But Sotelo said there are plenty of jobs to go around, especially at and near ski resorts.

Many industry leaders agree, saying that even with Trump's order in place, it's difficult to fill seasonal jobs with domestic workers. "A big part of the reason is — and this is true even during COVID — most Americans want a year-round job. They don't want a revolving-door-type job," said Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs at the National Ski Areas Association.

Byrd said between 7,000 and 8,000 J-1 workers fill jobs at many of the country's 470 ski areas every winter. Another 1,000 to 2,000 workers come to US resorts on H-2B visas, which are also barred by Trump's order. In total, foreign guest workers make up between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of the workforce at US ski resorts, according to Byrd, who calls it "a critical amount." According to an NSAA report released in July, just over half of 202 US ski resorts polled said they had trouble hiring a full workforce during the 2019-2020 winter season, and an average of 44 jobs went unfilled. The report said 27 per cent of ski areas were understaffed in the summer, and an average of 21 jobs went unfilled. Many seasonal jobs don't offer benefits such as health insurance or retirement plans, Byrd said, and it's even harder to recruit domestic workers because ski resorts are often in rural areas with expensive housing.

"Certainly in Western destination resorts, it is an enormous challenge for us to find workers because of the cost of housing in fancy destination ski venues — Vail, Crested Butte, Telluride, Taos, Jackson Hole, Big Sky, Sun Valley, Lake Tahoe," he said.


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