Housing crunch creates unique challenges for international, seasonal employees
With no time to spare, international, seasonal employees express challenges in finding local housing
If you visit any of the sites used to hunt for housing — Craigslist, Facebook and Nextdoor, to name only a few — you’re sure to find a slew of seasonal employees pleading for leads on housing.
Many of these employees seeking housing are J-1 visa holders with jobs already lined up at local ski resorts, hotels and restaurants. Perusing just a sample of the posts from these international students on the Eagle County Classifieds Facebook group include pleas such as:
“It is VERY difficult to get housing because there is no place for employees and that is why we search by our means.”
“I’m urgently looking for housing, my trip is two weeks away and I can’t find it.”
“We are a group of five friends who are going to work at Beaver Creek Resort from December to March. We are looking for housing options and it is being difficult to find.”
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One J-1 visa holder that took to Facebook in his housing search was Giles Ozolinš.
Ozolinš first visited America from Australia eight years ago on a tourist visa and “fell in love with the people, the culture and literally everything about it,” he said.
After this initial trip, Ozolinš immediately began trying to find ways to return to the country and discovered that in returning to college for a masters in business administration, he qualified for a J-1 visa. These visas are provided to international candidates participating in an exchange program to gain certain experiences or career training for a set amount of time.
Ultimately, through a long process, a visa officer referred Ozolinš to Vail. And after numerous interviews and offers, he accepted a job with the Lodge at Vail, one of numerous local properties owned by Vail Resorts Hospitality.
“I decided that the Lodge at Vail was the best place for me, as I emphasized that I wasn’t here for a ‘flash in the pan’ job. I wanted a career and to make America my home,” he said. “They said they might be able to help with that.”
Ozolinš then began the process of searching for housing.
“I was super worried, cautious and stressed,” Ozolinš said of the process, adding that he was cautious about the cost of rentals, especially those that requested huge deposits.
His future employer had already warned Ozolinš about the housing crisis, telling him it would be his biggest challenge.
“My employer couldn’t have been more open and honest,” he said, adding that they were willing to comp a few nights stay at the hotel.
Through a number of avenues — setting up a Craigslist alert and joining a number of Facebook groups — Ozolinš was finally able to find a place in Gypsum. He said that he was told he was one of over 30 people that applied for the room.
This housing suited Ozolinš’ needs and allowed him to pursue his dreams. And so far, one week into the job, he loves it.
“I get to meet Americans from all over the country that are just happy to be here,” he said. “The management and my co-workers have also made me feel so welcome, and I couldn’t ask for a better crew.”
‘A roof over your head and a warm bed’
However, the experience of looking for housing had its challenges.
Ozolinš, in describing the process of searching for housing, said that his posts on Facebook received a lot of negative comments from locals and required him to be realistic about what he was looking for — “A roof over your head and a warm bed is literally all you need,” he said.
This process made him want to pay it forward, and he’s begun offering to help other J-1 visa holders find housing.
“I would hate for someone to have all this optimism about living and working in America only to have to put their tail between their legs and return home,” he said, adding that his advice to other visa applicants is to not give up, to not let pride get in the way and to be smart throughout the process.
Navigating the world of online posting does require seekers to be both diligent and careful — the market is rife with scammers. That’s something that Sophie Yep also experienced.
A J-1 visa holder from Peru, she also ultimately found housing, but only after an arduous process. Yep, who has a job lined up at The Lodge and has worked in Vail for two prior seasons, said the situation of searching for housing this season has been “terrible.”
She said the whole process has been stressful and caused a lot of anxiety because, while living in Peru, “it’s difficult to check the place before moving,” and the rental market is full of scams.
“I know a lot of J-1s get scammed,” Yep said, adding that she herself has been contacted by a couple of scammers trying to convince her to sign leases, some even using Photoshopped IDs to do so.
Yep said that her employer did not offer her any employee housing, but she wished they had at least provided a contact list or recommendations of places to look.
While the struggle to find housing isn’t unique to international employees, there are challenges that are unique to their plight. It includes not being able to check out housing in-person, having the time of their stay and place of employment tied to their visa, and reliance on public transportation, which makes housing options downvalley a challenge for some.
An integral part of the workforce
In ski resort communities, the seasonal workforce plays a critical role in providing services to guests when tourism and visitation is its highest — winter and summer. And of this seasonal workforce, visa holders — both those with J-1 and H-2B visas — play a critical role.
“We typically have more jobs available than we do people to fill them: pre-pandemic and post-pandemic. Just many, many more jobs than people; especially the entry-level, typically lower paid jobs,” said Chris Romer, the president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership. “So, the J-1s, they’re a really important part of our workforce because they fill high-need, low-demand jobs.”
In the winter, these programs are even more critical as employers have “higher demand and higher touch points with guests,” Romer said.
J-1 visas were suspended last year due to COVID-19, and many businesses were able to adapt simply due to the lower business volume, Romer said. This winter, J-1 visas are again allowed at a critical time when both businesses and visitation are ramping up at the same time employers are facing employee shortages.
“Right now, we need the international workforce, and we need the student visas, because visitation is not going to be 20% down — it will be 20% or more up,” Romer said. “Frankly, where we’re at right now with the labor situation and the job situation is that any increase in available labor supply, especially for these front-line positions, helps the community. We need to be able to provide a high level of service going into the winter season. We need to be able to provide for the visitors that we know are coming. So we need the international workforce.”
In 2019, Eagle County had 1,904 J-1 workers out of its total labor force of around 36,000, according to Mark Hoblitzell, Business Services Coordinator for Northwest Colorado for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.
“Overall J-1 workers are a relatively small percentage of Eagle County’s labor force, but to employers in a shortage, all workers are critical,” Hoblitzell said.
Bob Boselli, the owner of Vail T-shirt Company, Vail Style, Generation Vail and the Covered Bridge Store, as well as a number of businesses in Aspen, relies heavily on these J-1 visa-holders.
“The international J-1 work and travel program makes up around 80% of our overall seasonal employee base,” Boselli wrote in an email to the Vail Daily. “For more than 25 years, we’ve recruited university students from across the globe through this program. The Boselli family has operated retail stores in Vail, with additional locations in Beaver Creek, Aspen, and Snowmass for over 40 years, and our company would not exist without the J-1 program.”
Vail Resorts, one of the county’s largest employers, according to its website, “hires hundreds of J-1 Student Visas,” each year.
John Plack, the senior communications manager for Vail and Beaver Creek, did not say how many J-1 visas the two resorts employ in a typical season, writing in an email that “each winter season is different, and we’re very excited to be welcoming back international employees to both Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek Resort.”
Plack added that the resort’s international employees “bring great energy and enthusiasm, and they help round out a wonderful workforce at these two destination resorts.”
In addition to filling a significant need in the labor market, they also bring an added value to the local resorts.
“They bring value to an area’s workforce both from the diversity they bring to an organization and what that means for the education and cultural experience of existing staff, as well as the ability of an organization to attract workers who speak a different language and have a different cultural knowledge and experience, which can be valuable to serving international guests,” Hoblitzell said.
However, this year, even though the ban on J-1 visas has been lifted, vaccine requirements and COVID-19 challenges, including the emergence of new variants, have created certain limitations for the program, Boselli said.
“COVID-19 mandates have made this year’s process very challenging,” he said, adding that these include the government’s mandates on which vaccines are required and remaining holds on certain countries.
“Ski resorts in Colorado won’t operate at normal capacities this season without our international J-1 staff. These J-1 students are a vital part of our success,” Boselli said.
Balancing competing housing needs
Of course, a significant part of the challenge in getting not only the J-1 employees but all seasonal employees to Eagle County this winter season is housing. While many employers have been proactive in securing workforce housing, it’s still clearly not enough.
“I see the things online, and I know how hard it is for anyone to find housing right now, and I think it’s exaggerated, or it’s that much harder for someone coming for four months instead of six, or six months instead of 12,” Romer said. “As you move down to the shorter lease period, it’s even harder on the housing side. We just don’t have nearly enough housing inventory.”
This challenge — that seasonal employees need shorter leases — could be perceived as at direct odds with the need for long-term local employee housing. Both are needed, and, yet, neither need is being fulfilled currently.
“The housing crunch that exists and the other factors that are challenges for seasonal workers and our year-round community — with the shift from long-term to short-term rentals — these things impact everybody,” Romer said.
Striking a balance between all the housing needs is a difficult challenge — and it is not a new one either.
“What the right balance of housing should be has long been a challenge to define in Vail and other mountain communities,” said Vail Town Manager Scott Robson. “Opinions on the issue often vary greatly depending on an individuals’ personal experience and perspective.”
What most do agree on is that finding a solution will require everyone coming together.
“Housing has clearly become one of the primary focus areas for the Vail community and Town Council — and, therefore, the town will continue to invest in a diverse array of housing stock for both year-round and seasonal residents,” Robson said. “To do so it will take partnerships with (the municipality, employers and) many public and private entities to support housing the community’s workforce.”
The role of employers, especially, will be critically important.
With “the idea of an employee housing shortage or an employer housing shortage, a lot of employers are being proactive with that but it’s near impossible to house all the seasonal workforce that we need in this community through the employer community — they have a role to play, employers,” Romer said. “But we, as a community, have a role as well.”
The town of Vail has a unique vantage point in the housing crisis, serving as both an employer and a policymaker.
“Obviously the town’s seasonal workforce is an important part of the housing plans — recognizing that many of these employees arrive in our community at a time when finding housing is the most challenging,” said Krista Miller, the town’s director of human resources. “The town has designated many of its own rental units for our internal seasonal workforce.”
For its employees, the town has 54 units for 62 town employees. Currently, about 50% are rented to seasonal employees, said the town’s communications director Suzanne Silverthorn.
Miller added that the town also supports the community seasonal workforce with the town-owned Timber Ridge Apartments, which are leased to both individuals and businesses.
Boselli is one of those employers that has been proactive in the solution.
“My company set a goal four years ago to purchase enough real estate in East Vail, West Vail and Avon that would fulfill our seasonal employee housing needs for our stores in Vail and Beaver Creek,” he said. “We currently have enough ‘beds’ to offer housing to all of our seasonal staff.”
Vail Resorts is another that has workforce housing available locally for both Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek Resort. According to Plack, “those slots are associated with the role and the department,” and are used to house both domestic and international employees.
However, there still isn’t enough inventory for all its employees.
On its website, Vail Resorts states that employee housing “is extremely limited and usually only offered to first year employees,” and does not signify which departments and roles are made a priority for this housing. The resort also warns that “because housing fills up rapidly, it’s not available to all employees.” It has a page with local resources for employees to utilize in finding housing.
As with all housing challenges, there’s no simple solution. However, going forward, Romer hopes that solutions will include — in addition to ongoing conversations about housing for long-term employees — the seasonal workforce and J-1 visa-holders.
“I think it’s an essential part of our workforce,” Romer said. “They fill a really important role and we need to have a real discussion around the housing aspect and how we work together with the employer community and things to make it work.”