Ski instructor questions Aspen decision to end visa program
ASPEN, Colorado – The Aspen Skiing Co.’s decision not to use H2B visas to hire foreign ski and snowboard instructors has put several longtime employees in a bind, according to one of the pros affected.
The instructor said the decision was made so late by the Skico that it will be almost impossible for 57 pros impacted by the decision to find other teaching jobs. He also questioned if the Skico was using new government regulations as a convenient excuse to end the program.
Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle said the timing was “unfortunate” but not controlled by the Skico.
“Our hands are tied. We’re not trying to screw anybody,” Hanle said.
The instructor didn’t want his name or any other identifying information used in an article because he hopes to get a different kind of visa and return to Aspen or another resort to teach. He said he wanted to offer his perspective after reading newspaper accounts last week of the Skico’s decision on the H2B visa program.
“When Skico told us that the H2B visa program was canceled, that meant that there will be no winter for all those pros,” the instructor said. “It’s almost impossible to get a job anywhere in Europe right now for us, and [it] will be a great loss, economically and personally for us.”
The timing, he said, adds insult to injury. “Skico knew that you apply for a job overseas in June, not in October,” he said.
The Skico announced last week that the recession and a reinterpretation of immigration regulations by the U.S. Department of Labor forced its decision not to use H2B visas to import ski instructors this winter.
The Skico decided early in the year to reduce the number of instructors hired through the H2B visa program from 109 last season to 57 this season. However, the Labor Department announced Aug. 21 that employers using the H2B visa program must pay the transportation costs of workers. The ski industry is hit particularly hard by that ruling because instructors come from South America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. For the Skico, it would cost thousands of dollars in airfares to hire the foreign instructors.
Hanle said it isn’t fair to blame the Skico for the timing. It immediately consulted with immigration experts about the Labor Department’s ruling, assessed the effect on the company and made a decision. Notification was sent to the 57 ski and snowboard instructors on Sept. 18.
“You can’t move any faster than that,” Hanle said.
The ski instructor who conferred with The Aspen Times said the Skico’s decision doesn’t make sense because the foreign ski and snowboard instructors earn significant income for the Aspen-Snowmass ski school. Many of them have worked for the Skico for years and have regular clients.
“Many of our clients like to ski with foreigners because it can be a cool experience,” he said. “Every one of the 57 banned on this cancellation are internationally certified instructors, with thousand of hours of experience – all great skiers or snowboarders.”
Their regular students might not book other lessons if their favorite instructors aren’t on staff. Therefore, the ski instructor said, the 57 foreign instructors are earning money for the Skico that offsets the cost of paying their airfare.
“The excuse of paying for our airplane tickets is not relevant and a little fake,” he said.
He stressed that the 57 foreign instructors weren’t unskilled laborers willing to come to the U.S. to work for lower wages than domestic workers. There is a demand for foreign instructors because Aspen attracts such a diverse clientele.
He was very complimentary of the ski school, as well as the instructors and support staff he met during his years in Aspen-Snowmass. That is why the company’s decision stings. He said it feels like he is being fired.
“The ski school is one of the best employers I’ve ever had” he said. “I’ve found great friends, the best bosses and secretaries you may find, peers I admire and learn from every single day.”
He also believes the Skico could have found a creative way to cover the transportation costs, if it really was a concern.
Hanle said “sidestepping” the new requirement that employers pay for H2B visa workers’ transportation costs was never an option for the Skico. That would put the Skico and the employees in jeopardy of not being able to use the program again if they were caught, he said.
In addition, the Labor Department’s new interpretation of H2B rules requires an employer to guarantee that workers get to work a minimum amount of hours. The Skico felt that would show favoritism to the foreign ski instructors, something it didn’t want to do, Hanle said. Ski school worker numbers are driven by demand.
Skico officials were upset that the instructor took his complaints to a newspaper rather than talking to them about his concerns, according to Hanle. He estimated the company is working with one-third of the 57 ski instructors to see if they qualify for other visas that would allow them to return to Aspen for the 2009-10 winter. He declined to provide specific examples because the Skico doesn’t want competitors to copy its tactics.
The overseas instructors still have a chance to get visas on their own, then try to land jobs. The source for The Aspen Times said he will try that, but it will cost him a significant amount of money to hire a lawyer for help obtaining the visa – and it is uncertain whether he will get it. It’s a stiff investment for an uncertain outcome, he said.
He said he’s been skiing 280 days a year and was looking forward to coming to Aspen-Snowmass for his “endless winter.” He said his “last” summer was in 1995.
“So for many of us, it will be summer at last,” he said.