A poster near the desk of Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. human resources recruiter Jim Kosky advertises employment opportunities with the ski area. Ski Corp. has had to find creative solutions to attract seasonal workers in light of caps to federal H-2B visas.

Photo by Matt Stensland

A poster near the desk of Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. human resources recruiter Jim Kosky advertises employment opportunities with the ski area. Ski Corp. has had to find creative solutions to attract seasonal workers in light of caps to federal H-2B visas.

Visa caps block help

Employers look for seasonal workers

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— The H-2B visa pinch has forced Steamboat Springs employers to get creative with ski season hiring.

Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., for example, is angling to take in foreign workers through other visa programs. Resort Group found a way to snag H-2B workers who already are in the country. The employers also are ramping up domestic recruiting.

Federal policy on H-2B visas is a major concern for both.

The issue for businesses that require seasonal workers is this: The U.S. government has capped H-2B visas, which allow foreign workers to come in for non-agricultural jobs, at 66,000 a year. Those visas are parceled out in two even cycles. The 33,000 visas that serve the winter season were gone in July. Until last year, Congress had allowed previous H-2B workers to return to their seasonal jobs without being counted toward the cap.

Congress has not renewed that extension.

It's been a challenge for Ski Corp., which adds about 1,700 workers for the ski season, said Trish Sullivan, Ski Corp.'s vice president of human resources. About 10 percent of the company's seasonal workers are foreign, she said. Last year, H-2B visas were still available when Ski Corp. needed them. This year, they disappeared much earlier, Sullivan said.

Hiring officials instead are focusing on J-1 student visas and Q visas, which allow foreign workers to share their culture with Americans.

Although Ski Corp. has worked with the student visas, the Q visa program is a recent addition, Sullivan said. Neither visa is subject to government caps, she said.

"Q specifically is a cultural exchange program, and : we really see it as a long-term opportunity to promote different cultures in our resort," Sullivan said. "We'll be planning some fun and exciting activities and promotions."

Through the Q program, Ski Corp. must provide job training and a chance for workers to interact with visitors and to serve as cultural ambassadors.

The J-1 visas last four months, which means those workers can't stay for the full ski season, which runs from about Thanksgiving to mid-April. Sullivan said Ski Corp. plans to address that by bringing in more workers and recruiting in the middle of the season. The Q program lasts 15 months, but Ski Corp. plans to split that up into three seasons, Sullivan said.

Ski Corp. also has increased its domestic recruiting, she said. The company sought workers at a sister resort in Florida and has added job fairs in Colorado. A local Ski Corp. job fair is planned for Oct. 3.

Other methods

Domestic recruiting also has been a focus for Resort Group. H-2B visa holders already in the country can stay up to 36 months if there's work, said Dina Fisher, human resources director at Resort Group. The company has been able to fill its need for seasonal workers through that process.

The H-2B caps still are frustrating for Resort Group, Fisher said. The rules require that companies seeking seasonal workers prove that they have a need. To do that, the employers must advertise the job no more than 120 days before it begins.

That shuts out ski season employers, who often don't see a real need until November or December, Fisher said. The visas being snapped up in July means those businesses never had a chance.

Resort Group had a group of workers from Jamaica that used to come every year. Fisher spoke highly of those employees, who already were trained and worked hard. They need the job, she said, and the H-2B program is set up so that when there's no more work, the employees go home.

"I see it personally," Fisher said. "It's just a shame that it's set up so you can bring in an unlimited number of students who don't really need the work, but the people who are trained who really need the work can't come in."

Those employees, she said, typically do the jobs that domestic workers don't want, such as cleaning rooms and shoveling snow. They aren't taking American jobs, Fisher said, and their presence shores up the midlevel workers and those in more dynamic jobs.

"We keep hearing with economy, with unemployment rising, that we'll see American workers who want to apply for these sorts of jobs," Fisher said. "We haven't seen it yet."

She also noted that many of those workers have second jobs in town, though that technically isn't allowed. Eliminating so many H-2B workers injures the overall work force, Fisher said.

Jennifer Rudolph, spokeswoman for Colorado Ski Country USA, said her group has been lobbying to get the returning worker extension renewed.

"This is certainly one of the bigger issues that the resorts are concerned about this year," Rudolph said. "Ski Country is doing everything they can to work with the Legislature to reinstate the returning worker exception. It's one of our top priorities this year."

Other ski resorts also are looking at J-1 and other visa options, Rudolph said. It's been tough.

"Everyone's starting from zero," she said. "There's just a certain number of visas, and when those are gone, they're gone."

- To reach Blythe Terrell, call 871-4234 or e-mail bterrell@steamboatpilot.com

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