VAIL, Colorado - Seasonal international workers used to make up a good part of the local workforce, but the Great Recession has changed the trend into one where internationals are having a harder time finding local jobs.
An immigrant worker visa known as the H-2B visa used to be a hot ticket for local employers who wanted not only seasonal labor, but also a cultural mix of employees in valley where people travel to from all over the world. The U.S. government has made significant changes to the H-2B program over the last few years, though, which has affected the way some local companies hire.
Vail Resorts spokeswoman Kelly Ladyga said the H-2B, which has an annual cap of 66,000 - 33,000 each in both summer and winter - and a prevailing wage standard, among other requirements, make it more challenging for companies to use the program.
Vail Resorts announced in the fall of 2008 that some of its longtime international ski instructors wouldn't be returning for the 2008-09 winter because of visa troubles, as other local businesses also reported a difficulty in getting workers through the program. The timing of that coincided with the onslaught of the Great Recession, too, making it easier for local employers to find local and American workers for seasonal jobs.
The following season, Vail Resorts reported hiring about 70 percent fewer international workers. The company also increased its domestic recruiting in summer seasonal destinations like Martha's Vineyard.
Raj Manickam, CEO at Steam Master Restoration and Cleaning, once hired many international, seasonal workers but said the national economy has changed that.
"I think it has come to the point where people are willing to get their hands dirty," Manickam said, adding that the company no longer hires with H-2B visas because it tries to meet the demand of local employment needs first.
Manickam said some past international workers will email the company looking to come back - Steam Master has received emails from South America and Eastern Europe.
"We're just very frank with them - you know how it is out here right now with the current economy," he said.
Vail Resorts continues to rely less and less on visas and only uses a small number of them where it makes sense for the business, Ladyga said.
"We're recruiting a larger number of domestic employees each year due to the H-2B situation," Ladyga said. "I believe at the start of the 2009-10 season we said that we had reduced our use of H2-B's by more than 70 percent, and this year we don't have any H-2B visas."
Of Vail Resorts' 18,000 total employees this season, about 3 percent are international workers, she said. There are many more qualified domestic applicants for positions than every before, too, which is why the visa situation hasn't affected hiring abilities much.
There are plenty of local companies that do still hire international workers in larger numbers, though. The Four Seasons Vail, an international hotel chain, has 32 international employees as of now - all of whom are on J-1 visas, said Jennifer Nicholas, senior human resources manager at the hotel.
She said her human resources counterparts at other large area hotels like the Ritz-Carlton, the Hyatt, the Sonnenalp, the Sebastian and the Vail Cascade Resort similarly hire on J-1 visas, as well.
"Our international employees are a little more than 10 percent of our total workforce and supplement our 'core' year-round local staff for our busy summer and winter seasons," Nicholas said. "I also think that Four Seasons, being an international hotel company, makes us a place that students from all over the world have heard of and want to work - many of them reached out to me directly via email through their friends from South Africa who lived and worked here last winter season. We also have a couple of employees from South America who worked for us last year and are returning to work for us again."
And companies that offer on-site employee housing such as the Four Seasons make an international move a lot easier to take on. Nicholas said 21 of the hotel's international workers are living in the hotel in employee housing.
Community Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.