Seasonal businesses including ski areas in the winter and construction in the summer are struggling with a visa cap that limits their ability to bring in international workers to meet employment needs.
The number of H-2B visas for non-agricultural seasonal workers is capped at 33,000 for the winter and spring season - a total of 66,000 annually. However, returning workers previously were not counted toward the cap, increasing the total number of visas potentially available to international workers.
But Congress failed to renew that provision before adjourning last year, a move some blame on the ongoing immigration debate in national politics.
"There isn't anything that's going to change unless the government puts some type of legislation in," said Colleen Miller, owner of local visa facilitator Viable Resources. "Unfortunately, it's an election year. Because of that, I think that all of our representatives are staying away from the issue at this point."
"I don't think anybody wants to take a stand on immigration in any form - legal or illegal," Miller said.
Bringing in seasonal workers on H-2B visas had worked well in the Yampa Valley the past three years, when the provision not counting return workers was ushered in, Miller said. The change was demanded when the cap being met too early caused some seasonal businesses to go under, she said.
Without a change in the law, that situation may be doomed to repeat itself.
Of the 2,000 people employed by Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., 1,800 are winter seasonal workers, spokeswoman Heidi Thomsen said. That need cannot be filled by locals alone, prompting international recruiting each summer for positions including ski instructors, lift operators and food and beverage service employees.
"We need them to come here and work these kind of jobs," Thomsen said.
A large number of seasonal workers at the ski area are returning H-2B employees who did not used to count toward the visa limit, Thomsen said.
But with last year's sunset of the returning exemption to the H-2B visa cap, the ski area had one batch of applicants denied visas this season, Thomsen said.
"The cap was met for the winter season at an extraordinarily early time," Miller said.
The cap on H-2B visas seems some-
what arbitrary, lift operator Lindsey Caddey said. Caddey, an Australian, is a seasonal employee on such a visa.
"I've met so many people who want to come here and work, but they couldn't get their H-2B visas," Caddey said. "And you get here, and everybody needs workers."
The spring worker cap also was met early, in part because of employees who may work only a few weeks into the season, which is defined as April 1 to Sept. 30 by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Employers with winter seasonal workers who need to stay into April, such as ski resorts, can file early for a spring H-2B visa for those employees, Miller said. The Steamboat Ski Area is scheduled to close April 6.
Meanwhile, true summer seasonal employers such as landscaping and construction firms can file visa paperwork no earlier than 120 days before a worker's start date, Miller said.
With summer employers only able to file for H-2B visas no earlier than December, the season's cap was almost met before any summer-only businesses could file, Miller said.
Employers must show a real need for employees at their start date, and April 1 is not a great time for Steamboat, where summer does not really get rolling until June, Miller said.
"It's not the easiest timeline for businesses," she said.
Although it is unclear exactly how big the problem will be this year and in years to come, it is a definite that the H-2B visa shortage will be felt in Steamboat, said Routt County Economic Development Council Business Resource Director Noreen Moore.
"Without these workers, there's a lot of businesses that will have to turn business away," Miller said. "It puts a lot of businesses and people in jeopardy."
Local nurseries and landscaping firms draw in dozens of summer workers on H-2B visas, and some local businesses were unable to acquire any for 2008, Moore said.
Remote communities such as Steamboat are at a particular disadvantage because of the area's difficulty in drawing workers from the Front Range, despite rising unemployment and the housing crunch.
"We do not have enough of a local employment base, and we live too far from the Front Range," Miller said. "We can barely pull people from Craig anymore."
Employers who turn to the Front Range to fill the void will have to be prepared to be extremely competitive for workers, especially because of Steamboat's high housing costs, Moore said.
"Everybody's going to be pulling from the same pool," Miller said.
With little confidence that visa policies will be changed to affect the current year, the ski industry is focusing its lobbying efforts on settling the matter in time for the 2008-09 season, said Colorado Ski Country USA spokeswoman Jennifer Rudolph.
In the meantime, the state's ski areas are learning that their ability to rely on international workers is not guaranteed, Rudolph said.
"Ski resorts have been forced to look elsewhere," she said. "It's been a bit of an eye opener."
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