Ski areas take wait-and-see approach to senator’s foreign worker inquiry

Colorado Senator Mark Udall's inquiry into how the popular J-1 Visa Program could be stealing jobs from American workers is certainly generating a lot of talk in the ski industry. But as SNEWS finds out, it could have an impact on the summer outdoor industry as well.

When Colorado Senator Mark Udall sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Aug. 8, 2011, expressing concern about the State Department’s oversight of the Exchange Visitor Program, some Rocky Mountain media outlets immediately speculated he was going after local ski resorts and the foreign workers they hire each winter.

“A popular program that many ski resorts use to supply staff has come under fire,” reported Telluride’s Daily Planet, which pointed to Telluride’s heavy recruitment in the past for chairlift, food service and hotel personnel in places like South America. While Colorado’s Summit County Voice ran a headline reporting that the “Visa program used by resorts was under scrutiny,” adding that Colorado ski resorts “have hired foreign students under the (J-1) program for seasonal jobs at a time when unemployment among youth is at record highs.” 

In his letter to Clinton, Udall did not call out resorts in particular, though he did say that the increasing popularity of so-called “J visas,” originally created in 1961 as a way to encourage cultural and educational exchange, has grown to a point where it is taking jobs from American workers.

“In the inaugural year of the Exchange Visitor Program, the Department issued fewer than 50,000 visas for purposes of educational and cultural exchange,” Udall wrote. “Since then, the number of cultural exchange visas has risen exponentially to more than 300,000 J visas. For at least the last five years, the summer work category of the program has consistently received more than one-third of visas issued. This subcategory, like others in the program, requires that the visa holder receive the same pay and benefits from the employer as U.S. workers.” 

Udall added that, “I request that you provide an outline of the steps that the Department has taken to ensure proper oversight and enforcement to protect against possible misuse of the visa program as it pertains to the protection of U.S. workers.”

While that certainly sounds like it could create a reduction in the number of J visas issued each year, most ski area operators don’t seem too concerned. 

“We really don’t think this will affect us,” Aspen Ski Company Director of Public Relations Jeff Hanle told SNEWS. “We are 100 percent in compliance and using the visas as they were intended. I spoke with his (Udall’s) office and it sounds like there are some companies in the U.S. who recruit workers and supply them to National Parks, and they may not be using them as intended.”

In the Daily Planet article, Telluride Ski & Golf CEO Dave Riley said that despite the area's heavy reliance on J-1s in the past, as far as the present economic climate is concerned, “We’ve been able to fill those positions locally.” 

And National Ski Areas Association Public Policy Director Geraldine Link said if anyone should be concerned about how the loss of J-1s might affect their personnel structure, it’s those businesses with an emphasis on summer activities.

“His (Udall’s) letter to Secretary of State Clinton mentions concern with the fact that one-third of all J-1 visas are issued during the summer months,” said Link. “Ski areas abide by the J-1 visa program rules and plan to continue using J-1 visas in the future.” 

She said that while ski areas have been able to find more domestic help in filling seasonal positions at resorts over the past couple seasons, they still need to hire some foreign workers through the H-2B and J-1 programs in the future.

“The ski industry dedicates considerable time, money and resources toward recruiting American workers to fill seasonal jobs, but despite these efforts, many ski areas are unable to fill all their seasonal positions with domestic staff,” Link said. “For this reason, programs like the H-2B and J-1 visa are critical to seasonal employers such as ski areas.”

--Peter Kray

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