Listening to Steamboat Springs Transit radio conversations used to be one of Jonathon Flint's favorite ways to pass the long winter days at work.
The SST operations manager would listen to an eclectic and sometimes indecipherable collection of accents from foreign locales, including Jamaica, England, New Zealand and Australia.
"And then me," Flint said, "the redneck."
But the airwaves will be much less cosmopolitan this year. The number of seasonal foreign workers who will be allowed into the U.S. in fiscal year 2009 may be cut in half from the year before. In Steamboat Springs and seasonal resort destinations nationwide, public and private employers are scampering to make up the difference.
"We got some unfortunate news last week," Flint said.
That news, delivered July 30 by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, was that enough petitions already have been received to reach the congressionally mandated cap on foreign seasonal workers for the first half of the federal government's fiscal year 2009, which begins Oct. 1, 2008. Workers seeking employment start dates prior to April 1, 2009, will have their applications for the visa program - known as H-2B - rejected.
The congressionally mandated cap of 66,000 H-2B visas - split evenly between the summer and winter seasons - previously was augmented by an exemption for returning workers, which was a provision of the 2005 Save our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act. A one-year extension of the act was passed in 2007, but not when the act expired again at the end of the fiscal year.
"We had several drivers in the pipeline for that," Flint said. "Several of these drivers had been with us before. They're not going to make it."
Matt Lee-Ashley, a spokesman for Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., said an extension of the returning worker exemption was part of comprehensive immigration reform efforts that "hit a wall" last year. Lee-Ashley said returning workers provided 32,000 seasonal foreign workers above the winter season cap of 33,000 this past winter.
"They wouldn't be counted twice if they came back," Lee-Ashley said.
Tracy Barnett, executive director of Mainstreet Steamboat Springs, said H-2B visas don't directly impact smaller downtown merchants because the cost of the program only makes sense for large employers such as Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. and Sheraton Steamboat Resort. There are, however, trickle-down impacts.
"I'm sure some of the guest workers have two jobs," Barnett said. "Now it's going to be even harder to get workers. : If we don't have any workers, the whole guest experience is going to suffer."
Lee-Ashley said there's still time to reinstate the returning-worker exemption if Congress acts fast when it reconvenes in September. Lee-Ashley said Salazar is a proponent of the exemption.
"There have been a lot of efforts to get that exemption passed," Lee-Ashley said. "But it's unclear when that will pass. There are hurdles to overcome. Not everyone's on board with it."
SST has taken steps to find workers elsewhere in an effort to avoid the type of bus-driver shortage that forced limited service and the temporary removal of some bus routes last winter.
Flint said SST is advertising and recruiting heavily in summer resort destinations such as Alaska. Flint said the city's purchase of the Iron Horse Inn aids recruitment efforts by guaranteeing housing for seasonal workers.
"It's a very, very competitive marketplace," Flint said.
SST faces work force difficulties even as it is on pace to surpass a record-setting 2007 in its number of riders. Local bus service carried 94,224 passengers in July, a 25 percent increase over July 2007. SST had carried 891,000 total passengers in 2008 as of Thursday and is on pace for 1.275 million passengers for the entire year. Last year's record number of passengers was 1.14 million.
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