Shortage of seasonal-work visas affects operations at Vail Valley businesses | VailDaily.com

Shortage of seasonal-work visas affects operations at Vail Valley businesses

While Congress finally acted on approving this year's seasonal-work visa program, the delay hurt businesses that depend on those workers.

This story has been changed to correct the spelling of Mike Stevens' name.

EAGLE COUNTY — It's been a tough summer for businesses that depend on seasonal workers.

In May, businesses that depend on immigrant seasonal workers were bemoaning a delay in federal authorization of this year's H2-B visa program. That program allows immigrant workers to come for a season, work and then go home. The summer season is defined from April through September.

At the time, landscapers, concrete and masonry companies were all gearing up for the season. Many found themselves without big parts of the workforce they expected.

Congress finally took action on the program in June, but it was "too little, too late," said Mike Stevens, of Eagle-based SHC Nursery and Landscape. Gary Woodworth, CEO of The Gallegos Corp., based in Edwards, agreed.

When Congress finally approved the program for 2018, the federal government approved 66,000 visas for non-agricultural, seasonal work.

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Woodworth said the Gallegos Corp. received about one-third of the seasonal employees it requested. The company applied for 100 visas, and had room for 50 or 60 seasonal employees. It got 30.

That made this summer difficult, Woodworth said.

Workers who were allowed into the country put in more overtime, Woodworth said. And the company, which has operations in the Vail and Aspen areas, Denver and in Montana, shifted crews among those sites.

"We've managed to keep up, but it's limited the amount of additional work we can take on," Woodworth said. That means if new jobs hit the schedule, then the answer to clients is often, "This could take a while."

Woodworth said he'd like to see the system return to the way it was in the early 2000s. Under that system, workers who had come for seasonal work the past two seasons were exempted from the federal cap.

Vail-based immigration attorney Amy Novak said that exemption expired in 2005. The national economy entered a prolonged slump shortly after, and the exemption was never renewed.

Woodworth said small businesses have been lobbying to have the "returning worker" provisions revived. That language has made its way through the House of Representatives and is now in the Senate, Woodworth said.

At this point, Colorado's congressional delegation supports the changes. But more support is needed.

Woodworth said the H2-B program is one that benefits both workers and business owners.

"You don't have to hang on to people through the slow times," Woodworth said. "People can come in and work, then spend four or five months at home."

The process of just who is eligible for a seasonal visa is "selective," Woodworth said. People and businesses are vetted, and violations can mean the loss of those valuable visas.

Lobbying needed

Novak said she's also been to the nation's capitol to lobby Congress.

"It's not that lawmakers don't understand (the need)," she said. "They're worried about their political futures."

While there's some support for reviving the returning worker provisions of the law, Novak said there isn't a broad consensus among lawmakers.

For now, though, businesses can't get the workers they need, Novak said.

The Center for Immigration Studies — which bills itself as "Low-Immigration, Pro-Immigrant" — last week released a report based on U.S. Census Bureau information indicating that there are few job categories dominated by immigrants.

Despite that information, which applies to the entire country, Novak said there's a real need in many seasonal businesses. One possible solution would be to allocate visas based on an area's need, she said.

While summer sees the biggest need for seasonal workers, Novak said there's also a need in the winter. The coming season could be "difficult," she said.

There's just "not enough workers," Novak said. The current system isn't working, she added, and Congress isn't acting.

And, while there's support for action in Colorado's congressional delegation, Novak said she's still urging her clients to call and write their representatives and senators.

"Something has to be done," she said.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com or 970-748-2930.

By the numbers

Colorado unemployment rate in June: 2.8 percent.

Eagle County population, 2017: 54,772.

Labor force: 36,125.

Eagle County unemployment rate: 2.3 percent.

Source: Colorado Department of Labor and Employment