Lost visas hit locally: County looks to navigate year without international workers

High school student Peyton McGuan takes an order at Debbie’s Drive In. Many businesses in the county have recruited local students for their seasonal workforce after international workers were banned due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Amy Golden /

Deb Fitch planned to hire 85 international workers this summer at her four local businesses, but the coronavirus outbreak meant none of the workers could get to Grand County this year.

Her restaurants — Debbie’s Drive In, Cork on the Water, Squeaky B’s and Lulu City — would have to find another way to recruit servers, bartenders, cooks and more.

“Everybody was scrambling because it was late in the season that we found out our (international) students weren’t coming,” Fitch said.

International workers have helped fill the temporary workforce at Fitch’s restaurants and many other businesses in Grand County, but it seems unlikely this year that such workers will be allowed into the country.

Many county businesses use international visa programs like the J-1 and H-2B to fill that worker scarcity. The J-1 Visa program allows foreign students to work seasonally in the United States and has become a popular program in Grand.

Businesses will have to change their recruitment approach for seasonal employees following a proclamation last month from President Donald Trump suspending nonimmigrant visas, including for J-1 workers, through the end of the year.

For Fitch, losing 85 potential employees has meant heavy recruiting of local high school students and partnering with universities. She’s been able to fill many positions, but she’s still short on workers at her restaurants.

A Headwaters Marina employee helps a family take out a pedal boat on Grand Lake. The marina and many other businesses in the county have been relying on local students for their workforce because of the ban on temporary international workers this year.
Amy Golden /

Captain Rick Tomkievich at the Headwaters Marina explained that all of his employees are local students except for one. The marina typically hires around a half dozen J-1 workers, so he’s been navigating an exceptionally busy summer with a limited staff.

However, Tomkievich thinks the shortage now is nothing compared to what’s going to happen after his student workers leave for school next month.

“Come to the middle of August, I don’t know what I’m going to do here,” he said. “We’re doing twice as much business with half the people right now.”

The marina is typically open through Labor Day, about a month after most of his employees will be leaving for school. Tomkievich has placed ads in the hopes of recruiting employees, but he doesn’t know if he’ll get enough to last through the summer.

While COVID has added a strain on hiring, this dilemma isn’t enitrely new. Workforce shortages have long been a struggle in Grand County.

Annual unemployment in Grand has coasted below 3%, not seasonally adjusted, since 2015. For seasonal positions in the county, whether that’s at a ski resort or a Grand Lake restaurant, businesses have had to adapt.

According to the US Department of State, the county saw 698 J-1 Visa students last year, with 299 participants living in Winter Park and Fraser, 195 in Granby, 131 in Grand Lake, 72 in Tabernash and one in Hot Sulphur Springs.

The county employed 9,765 people total last year, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Unemployment. That means that J-1 Visa workers, not including any other type of visa, supplemented roughly 7% of the county’s workforce.

Visa workers also play a critical role for one of the county’s largest employers. Winter Park Resort hired 110 international employees during the 2019-2020 season.

Jen Miller, a spokesperson for Winter Park, said the general consensus at the resort is that even without the visa ban, the COVID-19 pandemic would impact the international worker pool because of what happened in March. At the beginning of the outbreak, when ski resorts and borders in South America shut down almost simultaneously, international workers ended up stranded in the US.

She explained that most J-1 students come from South America, and some from the resort ended up in limbo waiting to fly home. The possibility of a similar situation happening again makes J-1 workers hesitant to return.

“It was a challenge across the industry to get them out when COVID first shut everything down,” she said. “There’s reluctance for them to come back at least in the immediate future.”

For the summer, Miller explained that Winter Park has worked to first employ domestic workers who felt the brunt of layoffs following the ski resort’s early closure. A few positions are still open, which she said is typical for front line positions like food and beverage.

One characteristic of this summer — unlike most seasons in Grand County — is the fact that unemployment has spiked to all time highs. The most recent joblessness numbers show 1,445 people out of work in May, equal to 16% of the workforce.

However, many of those who are unemployed are looking for higher paying or more permanent positions.

“J-1 positions are coming in to do front line work that are harder positions to fill with domestic workers,” Miller said.

As for the winter season at the ski resort, much remains uncertain. Extra demands on labor are likely this winter because of coronavirus regulations, including increased sanitation and smaller group sizes.

While the resort utilizes many strategies for hiring, not just J-1 workers, the group does help increase the overall pool of employees. The resort is doing its best to plan for anything during this time.

“The way things are going these days, it’s just really hard to know,” Miller said. “We’re planning for different scenarios, and a lot of different factors go into our hiring strategy.”

Miller added that Winter Park hopes to keep the program at some level because of how beneficial it has been to the resort.

Fitch feels the same about the J-1 students who work at her restaurants. She has been happy to connect with more young workers in the community but looks forward to resuming J-1 student employment.

“I love our students,” Fitch added. “A lot who would have been returning are also like family … I hope that the program does continue.”

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