Special to the Sky-Hi News
Foreign Workers by the numbers
Current students in Colorado on J-1 Visas: 3,149
Total numbers of students who participated in 2012: 6,464 came to Colorado; 2937 came to Utah; 2174 came to Montana; 31,122 came to California; 12,554 came to Washington, D.C.
— Statistics from j1visa.state.gov
The summer season in Grand Lake is in full swing, but Bob King, owner of Pancho & Lefty’s, feels like he is playing catch-up. Until a couple of weeks ago, he was severely understaffed.
“It’s been extremely difficult. We’ve had to close a couple of days. We had to give people days off. We’re barely now just getting staffed. We should have been fully staffed a month ago,” he said.
Pancho & Lefty’s staff is even more diverse than its menu, representing four countries on two different continents.
“I think I have more foreigners working today than people from this country,” said King. “I don’t know what any of us [Grand Lake business owners] would do without them.”
King is referring to the college students who arrived in Grand Lake the past few weeks. They work here legally by obtaining J-1 visas, temporary work-and-travel visas granted to college students though the U.S. State Department. King currently has eight Romanians, seven Jamaicans, four Macedonians, and two Poles employed for the summer.
Local applicants dry up
King’s reliance on foreign workers is not due to a lack of effort to recruit local help. Before the busy summer season began, he ran an ad in the Sky-Hi News for two weeks and participated in an area job fair.
“I have been very unsuccessful at hiring local people,” he said. “We used to get U.S. college kids or high school kids coming around. But this year, we didn’t get a single person.”
King is not the only business owner facing a shortage of seasonal service workers. Other Grand Lake businesses have begun to rely heavily on J-1 student visa employees. Larger employers like Granby Ranch and Winter Park Resort hire service workers through the program, mostly from South American countries like Peru, Argentina, and Chile.
Emily Caldwell, human resources manager at Granby Ranch, estimates they have been recruiting students through the visa program for 12 years.
“We recognized then, and today, that no matter how much we advertise, we are unable to fill all the positions required to provide great customer service to our guests and members. We are fortunate that these programs are available and that our guests respond very positively to learning about the program, the students and their home countries,” she said via email.
King noticed a significant change about four or five years ago.
“I’ve been bringing people over from Romania or Poland for the past five years,” he said. “Then it spread by word of mouth. They go back to their countries and tell their friends.”
That’s how waitress Alexandra Simona Pritt found out about Pancho & Lefty’s in 2009. Her classmates, who worked there the previous summer, showed her photos of the surrounding lakes and mountains.
“I fell in love with Grand Lake. So I came back,” she said.
Then she fell in love with her now-husband, an American citizen. She was working as a hostess and he in the kitchen at the restaurant. She now lives and works in Grand Lake year-round.
There are some benefits to both the workers and employers using the J-1 visa program. King’s students arrive later in the summer, but they can continue working into October, unlike the U.S. students who leave him short-handed at the end of the season when they return to school.
King also finds the majority of foreign students to be reliable and hard-working.
The students save money and travel. During her summers in Grand Lake, Pritt saved enough to buy a car, pay her tuition and assist with house payments on her family home in Romania. Her co-worker Oana Astílean, a final-year law student in Romania, has traveled extensively during her work-travel summers, including trips to Hawaii and the Caribbean. Even with her high level of education, she finds working as a server in the U.S. interesting.
“Compared to Europe, it’s pretty exciting,” she said. “There, you just bring the food. Here, you talk more to the people, there’s more interaction.”
behind the shortage
Caldwell points to the high cost of living in the county, especially the lack of affordable housing, as the major barrier to recruiting and keeping employees. Granby Ranch offers assistance to employees in locating housing in the county, as does King. This summer he scrambled to obtain housing close enough for workers to walk or bicycle to work, because most don’t have reliable transportation.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), housing is considered affordable when the monthly payment (rent or mortgage) is equal to no more than 30 percent of the household gross income (i.e., income before taxes).
The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment reports that hospitality workers in Grand County earn salaries between $19,812 per year and $25,220 per year. Similarly, Granby Ranch’s seasonal hourly wages range from $8 to $15 per hour. The median annual gross income in that range is $23,920. The maximum rent paid per person earning that income should be no more than $598 per month (30 percent of monthly income) to be considered affordable.
Average rents in the county range from $700-$800 dollars per month, according to the website city-data.com. Service workers must have a minimum of two incomes per household and no dependents in order to afford rent.
Special Skills Required
Matt Bailey, owner of Alpine Landscape Service LLC in Winter Park, has been trying to replace two of his college-educated workers who moved on to careers related to their degrees. This summer is the first time in the past five years Bailey has been short-handed.
“The number one thing I look for in finding a seasonal employee is someone who is self-directed,” he said. “I usually hire college-educated. They come out here to do the ski thing and then they stay on.”
Bailey needs some special skills for his workers to be successful: math to figure irrigation flows and knowledge of equipment, horticulture, or masonry. He also looks for employees who he can train and develop.
“The applications I’ve gotten so far are more just people looking for a summer job. That’s not what I look for in my employees. I look for someone I know is going to fit in with my family — that’s what I call it because we’re small.”
Winter Park Central Reservations Director Sue Neumann has also noticed a dearth in college-educated applicants.
“We used to get the recent college graduates, the just-fresh-out-of college looking to get their foot in the door in the ski industry,” she said.
The travel planning center needs people with guest service or hospitality experience, but she also likes to hire locals.
“We would love to get folks from the local community because they know the area. We book the entire vacation package and local people know the area, they know the products, they know all of the different lodging opportunities.”
Bailey believes that the other reason workers are harder to find is that the economy is rebounding, so there is more work. He is busier, and so are other businesses he competes with to hire laborers.
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