Quest for workers takes Aspen Skico south
ASPEN ” The Aspen Skiing Co.’s quest to find enough workers this winter led recruiters to Puerto Rico, among other places.
The company hired about 20 workers from the Caribbean island this fall to work in various positions at its two lodging properties, The Little Nell hotel and Snowmass Lodge and Club, according to Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle.
The Skico was forced to get creative this year when there was a snafu at the national level with the H-2B visa program for temporary guest workers. An exemption to the program expired Sept. 30, after Congress failed to address comprehensive immigration reform.
There is a 66,000 annual cap in H-2B visas. However, foreign workers who came to the U.S. during part of the prior three years were traditionally allowed to return for another season without counting toward the quota.
The loss of that exemption hurt the ski company. It filled 230 positions via the H-2B visa program last winter. This year, it could only use the special visas to fill 100 positions in mountain operations.
“What we believed was going to be a difficult year turned out to be a very difficult year,” said Jim Laing, Skico’s vice president of human resources and retail operations.
The loss of 130 H-2B visas hit the Skico’s hospitality division hardest and forced the human resources departments to explore creative new ways to fill positions. A recruiter at The Little Nell thought of recruiting in San Juan after reading an article in the Aspen Daily News about a Puerto Rico native who brings workers from there to fill positions on the mainland, according to Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle. The recruiter from the hotel visited the island in September, then returned to San Juan in November with a representative from the Snowmass Club.
As first reported by Aspen Public Radio KAJX, they returned with commitments from 20 workers. As residents of a U.S. Commonwealth, they are exempt from the guest worker programs. The new hires will fill positions in housekeeping, engineering and guest services, Hanle said.
The Skico also hired more workers with student J1 visas to try to make up the gap of lost H-2B visas. The students usually must return to their homelands for studies before the end of ski season, so they aren’t always the best solution to staffing.
Hanle noted that most foreign workers coming on a H-2B visa are attracted by Aspen’s skiing and lifestyle. That’s not the case with the Puerto Rican workers.
“Most of these people were coming strictly because of the economic incentive,” he said. The Skico was trying to find housing for all of them.
Laing said last week that the company had filled more than 95 percent of its positions.
“We might be as close as we’re going to get” to being fully staffed, he said. It’s a fluid situation ” workers are constantly quitting or returning to school, so new employees are always sought. “It’s a 365-day [hiring] process these days,” he said.
The Skico needs about 3,500 workers on the mountains and at its lodges during peak season. Laing said the company has an adequate number of workers to offer its usual high-quality service. Guests won’t have any indication that it is short a few employees, he said.