Ban expires on international work visas commonly used by ski areas

A lift operator watches as skiers unload a chairlift on Nov. 6 at Keystone Resort. A federal ban on international work visas this ski season shrunk the labor pool for ski areas that rely on international workers to fill seasonal jobs, but the suspension has now expired.
Photo by Liz Copan / Studio Copan

H2-B and J-1 visas have long been used by local ski areas to hire international employees seasonally. These visas were suspended in June under the Trump administration in an effort to limit immigration and improve job prospects for Americans. Now, the Biden administration has let the suspension expire, potentially adding to the county’s labor pool in the coming months.

Local ski areas moved away from hiring with H2-B visas, which are temporary visas for nonagricultural workers, after a cap was set in 2008 at 33,000 H-2B visas for the country’s winter season from Oct. 1 to March 31. Keystone Resort spokesperson Loryn Roberson previously reported that Vail Resorts moved toward J-1 visas that are less limited. The J-1 visa is described by the U.S. Department of State as an “exchange visitor program.”

When readying for the 2020-21 ski season, resorts were left without a segment of their hiring pool and encouraged people with flexible work or school schedules to apply. While the federal suspension on international work visas didn’t expire until March 31, Copper Mountain Resort spokesperson Taylor Prather wrote in an email that the resort did have international employees working at the mountain on J-1 and H-2B visas this season.

Prather said the visas were allowed through variances the resort applied for. Despite the variances Copper received, Prather said the amount of J-1 visas the resort was able to use was limited, in part because of travel restrictions in the countries where potential employees lived. Overall though, Prather said there wasn’t much of an impact on the resort.

“In a nutshell, there was very little impact to our season as international employees coming to work at Copper with those visas represent a very small number of our total staff during the winter season,” Prather wrote.

While Keystone and Breckenridge Ski Resort spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment on international work visas, the resorts typically rely on international employees during the ski season. In 2008, the Summit Daily News reported that Vail Resorts aimed to bring 1,900 seasonal workers to its ski areas through the H-2B visa program. In October of last year, as the county headed into the 2020-21 ski season, Vail Resorts had about 200 job openings. When asked about staffing, Roberson wrote in an email that the resort had a good base of seasonal employees to open the resort and found interest among students who had more flexibility with online learning or college deferral.

In response to the news that the visa suspension has expired, Summit Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Blair McGary said Wednesday that she doesn’t think it will solve the county’s workforce issues but that it could help, particularly when it comes time for the resorts to hire for next ski season.

“It’s a small step in the right direction to a welcomed return to normal,” McGary said. “I don’t think it will have a huge effect on the workforce immediately, but I think come this fall, it will make a huge difference and will be very helpful.”

McGary said that while there are likely restaurants in the county that employ international workers on these visas, she thinks the biggest impact is on the ski resorts, adding to the labor pool for next ski season and potentially summer resort operations.

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