Ski Resorts Could Be Left Out in the Cold With Seasonal Workers

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By Genevieve Douglas

Labor force shortages are even pinching winter seasonal employers who face uncertain visa options to fill the gaps.

Fall and winter seasonal employers are fortunate because there are traditionally fewer petitioners for temporary seasonal visas than there are in the spring and summer, Keith Pabian, founding partner of Pabian Law LLC, told Bloomberg Law Aug. 8. Last year, the 33,000 cap for H-2B temporary seasonal work visas wasn’t hit until February, and “the government processes the visas faster, and it’s a more efficient process” than the spring and summer season, said Pabian, who specializes in representing seasonal businesses in immigration matters.

But economic forces could play a role in whether businesses get all the workers they need. The economy is strong and the visa cap is limiting, shutting out businesses to needed workers, Laurie-Ann Flanagan, co-chair of the H-2B Workforce Coalition on behalf of AmericanHort and the National Association of Landscape Professionals, told Bloomberg Law. “The past two years of strong economy and low unemployment means there’s been more pressure and demand for H-2B workers.”

One major winter seasonal industry is feeling the pinch of low unemployment—ski areas in the Northeast, Midwest, and Pacific Northwest.

All have unemployment rates at or below 4 percent, the threshold economists consider “full employment,” according to 2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. David Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs for the National Ski Areas Association, told Bloomberg Law that these businesses are turning to temporary visa programs to fill employment gaps.

The H-2B visa program is designed for non-agricultural, seasonal work. There is an annual visa cap of 66,000 H-2B visas per year, and demand has steadily grown for foreign seasonal workers.

Summer Fallout

The most recent round of H-2B visas was an unusual experience for many employers. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services held the first-ever lottery for H-2B visas in March after demand for spring and summer workers outpaced the pre-determined cap. A second lottery in June made an additional 15,000 visas available to spring and summer employers.

That doesn’t mean that every business got the workers it needed, however. Russell Landscape Group in Atlanta petitioned for 25 H-2B workers for the FY 2018 spring/summer season and was rejected due to high demand, Teddy Russell, president and owner of the business, told Bloomberg Law Aug. 8.

The landscaping company decided to hire 35 workers without the necessary skills to train and employ after losing out on H-2B workers, but only two of those hires were left after six weeks, Russell said. “There’s not enough labor out there,” Russell said. “We desperately need a seasonal workforce that’s willing and able and trained.”

The experience of summer seasonal employers has put winter seasonal employers on edge this year, Pabian said.

A Tale of Two Visas

For many ski resorts there is another visa option, even if it doesn’t meet every need of winter seasonal businesses. Large ski resorts have turned to international student exchange visas to employ seasonal workers from the Southern Hemisphere to work as lift operators, ski instructors, and restaurant workers, Byrd said.

These J-1 visas are cheaper than H-2B visas, but they also come with drawbacks. For example, Byrd said, students on summer breaks can’t stay the full five or six months of the typical ski season, and businesses are often looking for specific skills or experience that these workers do not have. “It doesn’t fill the entire breadth of what we need for a ski season,” he said.

But employers fear options could change, as many immigration programs could be on the administration’s radar, Pabian said. If J-1 visa requirements became more onerous and costly, the H-2B visa option probably would win out because it provides employers with more experienced workers for a longer period of time, he said. “H-2B visas seem safe and not on the government’s chopping block. In fact, this is the only visa type where additional visas have been added over the past two years.”

USCIS is considering a number of policy and regulatory changes to carry out the Trump administration’s executive orders, “including a thorough review of employment-based visa programs,” spokesman Michael Bars said in a statement provided to Bloomberg Law. “USCIS is focused on safeguarding the integrity of our immigration system and ensuring its faithful execution and adherence to the laws designed to protect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers. USCIS is committed to reforming employment-based immigration programs so they benefit the American people to the greatest extent possible.”

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