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Visa limits may drain local labor

Melanie Wong
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL ” Resorts, hotels, and other businesses in the valley may be scrambling for workers in the upcoming year after limits were put on a federal program that allowed employers to hire international workers.

Colorado ski resorts employ 2,000 to 3,000 workers on H-2B visas, which allow foreign workers to work at seasonal businesses, and some businesses are worried about what the new limits mean for upcoming ski seasons, said Melanie Mills, spokesperson for Colorado Ski Country USA, which represents 26 ski resorts.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services limits the number of new visas issued to 66,000 per year ” 33,000 beginning Oct. 1 and the rest beginning April 1.



To meet the need for seasonal workers, Congress created a two-year program in 2005 that exempted returning H-2B workers. That meant workers who recieved an H-2B visa in one of the three previous years were not counted in the 66,000 limit.

When that exemption expired in 2006, Congress extended it for a year to Sept. 30.

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The visa quota was already reached on Sept. 27 this year, three days before the Oct. 1 cycle, meaning any visa applications filed after that for workers who are not exempt will be rejected, said Chris Pooley, an Avon immigration lawyer.

“The demand is increasing, and the quota has not increased,” he said.

Most of the valley resorts will be covered for the upcoming ski season because they applied for the visas early enough.



“Our resorts had the majority of petitions in by September, so we think most of those visas are included in the limit,” Mills said.

Vail Resorts probably won’t run into staffing problems this season, said spokeswoman Kelly Ladyga.

“We already processed our visas prior to the cap, including those for ski instructors in Vail and Beaver Creek. I’m confident we’ll be at full employment,” Ladyga said.

Vail Resorts hires ski instructors and hospitality staff from all over the world, especially from Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

During the peak season, Vail Resorts employs 14,000 workers, but H-2B visa workers make up less than 10 percent of that, Ladyga said.

Most of the housekeeping staff in Beaver Creek and some front desk staff at Beaver Creek are visa workers, said Elisse Kelley, human resources director for East West Resorts, which manages many resorts in the area, including Bachelor Gulch and Eagle Point.

They have their H-2B staff approved for this season, but it has been harder to get the visas approved over the last few years, leaving them short-staffed at times, she said

“The trend has been to tighten enforcements, but not understanding the operational needs of businesses,” she said. “The valley definitely depends on H-2B visas.”

While the resorts are covered for this winter, Kelley said she worries about next summer and the 2009 ski season. The Westin Hotel in Avon opens next summer, and even more workers will be needed, she said.

“I just look at the hiring crunch and it’s frightening,” she said. “Honestly I don’t even know how to deal with the impact of the crisis.”

Many workers are recruited locally, but that is not always possible, she said.

“It’s our goal to have American citizens working, but in this valley realistically there aren’t enough people to take these jobs,” Kelley said.

The visa limits are bad news for the summer season, agreed Kathy Roseberry, human resources director for Sonnenalp Resort in Vail. They already have about 40 housekeeping staff approved for H2-B visas for this ski season, but staffing the golf course during the summer may be a problem, she said.

She worries that if the visa limits are not changed, Sonnenalp will not have enough workers for next ski season. The visas are “absolutely necessary” to valley businesses, she said.

“We’d have a hard time finding housekeepers without the visas,” Roseberry said.

While many bigger businesses who have used the visas for years are covered for this season, others who did not apply early may not be so lucky.

The Allegria Spa at Beaver Creek will apply for nine H-2B visas this year. It is the first time the spa has used H-2B workers, and it is possible they will not be approved, said Brian McCormick, human resources director for the spa.

“We’re optimistic, though,” he said. “We’ll have to be more concious about domestic recruiting efforts in the future and work a little faster.”

However, he said if the limits stay in place, it will change the recruiting climate and labor market in the valley.

“It’s not just that people aren’t going to get the visas, but hundreds of people who usually are in the valley won’t be, and someone will need to fill those positions. It’ll be tighter than usual and there won’t be as many qualified workers in town,” he said.

There are bills in the Congress and Senate to extend the visa limits, Pooley said, but neither have been passed.

U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, who represents Eagle County, is co-sponsoring a bill that would extend the visa quota.

“These returning workers have provided much needed relief to the tourism industry, seafood processors, landscapers, resorts, pool companies, carnivals and seasonal businesses across the nation that rely on the H-2B Visa program. WIthout an immediate extension, these businesses will face labor shortages this year,” wrote congressional sponsors of a bill to extend the program.

The congressmen and many Colorado ski businesses have been lobbying for the bill to be passed.

“We have heard from many Colorado businesses very worried about the impact of the failure of Congress to extend the enlarged pool of H-2B visas,” said Tara Trujillo, communications director for Udall.

Meanwhile, many Vail valley businesses will be holding their breaths for the decision.

“It’s very important to get the returning worker provision extended,” Mills said. “The valley really depends on it.”

Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 748-2928 or mwong@vaildaily.com.


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