Hiring challenge: Ski resorts trying to fill workforce amid pandemic, student visa ban
Special to the Sierra Sun
Tahoe ski resorts are navigating through a pandemic and a shortage of international workers and affordable housing as they hire staff for the winter season.
President Trump this summer, on June 22, signed an executive order temporarily barring a wide variety of foreign worker visas, including J-1 visas often issued to South American students who come to North America during their summer breaks.
As ski resorts lay out their plans to operate safely during the coronavirus pandemic, by requiring facemasks, enforcing social distancing in lift lines and eliminating dine-in service, Trump’s order has added another obstacle heading into the winter: hiring enough temporary workers to fill crucial jobs like operating chair lifts and serving food among other positions.
Trump said foreigners pose a risk to American workers as the country tries to jumpstart its economy.
“American workers compete against foreign nationals for jobs in every sector of our economy, including against millions of aliens who enter the United States to perform temporary work,” according to the order, which is set to expire at the end of the year.
Some industry leaders agree, saying that even with Trump’s order in place, it’s difficult to fill seasonal jobs with domestic workers.
“A big part of the reason is — and this is true even during COVID — most Americans want a year-round job. They don’t want a revolving-door-type job,” said Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs at the National Ski Areas Association.
Byrd said between 7,000 and 8,000 J-1 workers fill jobs at many of the country’s 470 ski areas every winter. Another 1,000 to 2,000 workers come to U.S. resorts on H-2B visas, which are also barred by Trump’s order. In total, foreign guest workers make up between 5% and 10% of the workforce at U.S. ski resorts, according to Byrd, who calls it “a critical amount.”
According to an NSAA report released in July, just over half of 202 U.S. ski resorts polled said they had trouble hiring a full workforce during the 2019-2020 winter season, and an average of 44 jobs went unfilled. The report said 27% of ski areas were understaffed in the summer, and an average of 21 jobs went unfilled.
Many seasonal jobs don’t offer benefits such as health insurance or retirement plans, Byrd said, and it’s even harder to recruit domestic workers because ski resorts are often in rural areas with expensive housing.
“Certainly in Western destination resorts, it is an enormous challenge for us to find workers because of the cost of housing in fancy destination ski venues — Vail, Crested Butte, Telluride, Taos, Jackson Hole, Big Sky, Sun Valley, Lake Tahoe,” he said.
At Sierra-at-Tahoe on Tahoe’s South Shore, international workers make up less than 10% of the staff, said resort spokesperson Sarah Sherman.
“Hiring is a process we go through every fall, though this year we are doing all hiring virtually and are losing the element of bringing in international workers via the J1 program,” Sherman said. “We value the cultural exchange that program provides to Sierra and the community, but are quickly adapting to these changes.”
Sherman said that the resort has seen an uptick in new applications from people with different backgrounds and from some who are looking to work outdoors.
“We have been lucky to receive a lot of new applicants,” she said. “We’re seeing people apply from a number of different backgrounds — college students who just graduated, those looking to make a career change, some who are newly unemployed. People seem to have a renewed interest in jobs that let them be outside.”
One of the big challenges for Sierra, and the Lake Tahoe Basin as a whole, is the lack of affordable housing. The resort has a housing incentive program, “Rental Rewards,” where they trade lift tickets for homeowners willing to rent to Sierra workers.
“While we are getting a lot of interest in positions, we are concerned about those hoping to move here for work being able to do so,” Sherman said. “With that in mind, Sierra is continuing its housing incentive program to those willing to rent their homes to employees. Participating homeowners and landlords can earn lift tickets when they rent to an employee through the program.”
Diamond Peak Ski Resort is just starting its big hiring push. They hosted a Winter Job Fair from 3:30-5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 14 at its base lodge where prospective employees needed to show up with “masked smiles” and “air-fives” were strongly encouraged.
The North Shore mountain hires less J-1 employees than the bigger companies like Vail Resorts who own 33 resorts in the U.S. including Kirkwood and Heavenly mountain resorts and Northstar California at Tahoe.
“While we don’t traditionally hire as many J-1 employees as the bigger resorts around the Tahoe Basin, we have typically hired 20-25, so we will be looking for additional local workers to fill that gap,” said Diamond Peak Marketing Director Paul Raymore. “While we don’t yet know what this year will bring, hiring for the ski season has been, and continues to be, one of the biggest challenges the resort faces. We will see what a global pandemic thrown into the mix does for hiring. It should be an interesting year for sure.”
Vail Resorts has historically relied on foreign workers and is recruiting more aggressively in local communities for the upcoming season and is seeing some interest among college students who have more flexibility because they are learning remotely or are taking a gap year because of the pandemic.
“We have already ramped up winter season recruiting efforts and have been pleased with the results so far,” said Vail Resorts spokesman Ryan Huff, who declined to say how many foreign workers the Colorado-based company hires for a typical winter season. Huff noted that Vail Resorts could pursue a “limited number” of foreign workers if and when the restrictions are lifted to help staff the remainder of the season.
The NSAA and ski resorts across the country were keeping an eye on two federal lawsuits challenging Trump’s order — one in Washington D.C. and the other in the Northern District of California. The D.C. judge kept in place Trump’s ban on J-1 and H-2B visas, so now the ski industry is pinning its hopes on the California judge throwing out the directive.
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With the economy in California opened back up, businesses throughout the region are finding it difficult to attract employees.