Ski Corp. relies less on visas to fill seasonal posts
April 12, 2009
Steamboat Springs — Life has changed dramatically since ski area officials bemoaned visa rules last fall.
At the time, Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. and other companies were concerned about how they’d fill seasonal posts. The federal government hadn’t extended a rule allowing workers on H-2B visas to return. Ski Corp. planned to rely heavily on J-1 student visas and Q visas that allowed foreign workers to share their cultures.
Instead, the troubled economy meant Ski Corp. needed fewer workers entirely, said Trish Sullivan, Ski Corp.’s vice president of human resources.
“At the time we recruited and hired J-1s, it was before the economy went way south, and so as we started to see changes to the economy, we did rescind some job offers,” Sullivan said. “We still brought on a number of J-1s, but we did reduce those numbers.”
In past years, Steamboat Springs’ ski area has had a ski season staff of about 1,700. This year, it was closer to 1,500, Sullivan said. Ski Corp. has about 240 year-round employees.
Ski Corp. had about 100 workers on J-1 visas and about 16 on Q visas. This was Steamboat’s first year with the Q visa program, and Ski Corp. hired those workers through the American Hospitality Academy. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is reviewing that agency to make sure its Q visa program is valid, Sullivan said.
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“We did have probably about : 25 that did not get through the process,” she said. “They didn’t make it into the U.S. because it was held up by USCIS.”
Those Q visa workers came from Canada, New Zealand, England, Argentina, Australia, Peru, Chile, Denmark and Hungary.
Teaching more than skiing
Emma Lightbody, a nurse from Newcastle, England, taught skiing to children ages 4 to 6 in Steamboat Springs this winter. The program required her to take courses online and to share her culture with Americans.
The Q visa participants held events, such as one where
they had booths and taught children about their countries, Lightbody said.
“I always used to ask them when I had them if they knew where England was,” she said. “A majority of the time, they didn’t. They thought it was in South America or something.”
Lightbody learned to ski at Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia and has skied in New Zealand. This winter was her first in Steamboat.
“I loved working with the kids,” Lightbody said. “It was always a lot of fun and was good to see the progress they would make from the time that they were there. : Steamboat as a whole has been a lot of fun, being able to ski on the mountain and enjoy what it has to offer.”
Lightbody said she would like to stay through the summer, but she isn’t sure whether she’ll be able to get a visa to do so.
Sullivan wasn’t sure what sort of future the Q visa program would have in Steamboat. She said last fall that Ski Corp. planned to split the 15-month program throughout three seasons. But the review by the federal immigration agency could be an issue.
A key benefit of that program, Sullivan said, is that it provides skiing and snowboarding instructors.
“That’s one thing we will continue to look at because of our ability to get certified instructors, and that’s not something that’s going to be met by J-1s,” who typically are university students, Sullivan said.
The future of the J-1 program also remains unclear.
“We’ve pretty much put on hold any active J-1 recruitment,” Sullivan said. “I think we’re going to hold off. : We’re obviously going to look much more closely at domestic recruitment.”
A shrinking issue
Ski Corp.’s H-2B visa worries have grown less urgent. The U.S. government caps seasonal H-2B visas at 66,000 a year, or 33,000 in two halves. The timing of recruitment and job postings had all but shut out the ski area. An extension expired that had allowed people who previously worked in the country on H-2B visas to return.
Ski Corp. had just a few H-2B workers this season, Sullivan said. But the company isn’t ignoring the issue.
“With high unemployment, we feel we can significantly reduce the need for H-2B visas at least this year,” she said. “Hopefully, the economy is going to improve so we can revisit that again in future years.”
Jennifer Rudolph, spokeswoman for Colorado Ski Country USA, said H-2Bs became almost a non-issue for members of the trade group.
“It’s definitely not something we’ve packed up and put away,” Rudolph said. “The H-2B situation is still very important to our members, and we as the trade association for Colorado are paying close attention, and we are watching it. We’ve got two folks involved in public policy who are involved in it.”
One benefit of those H-2B workers is that they typically fill high-turnover positions in areas such as housekeeping, lift operations, and food and beverage service, Sullivan said.
But there was a silver lining. The recession allowed Ski Corp. to focus on hiring top-quality workers, and the resort earned the highest customer-satisfaction ratings of Intrawest’s resorts, she said.
“The other thing that we noticed was when we did have openings, we received a large number of applications for each opening,” Sullivan said, “which is great because as an employer, you always want to be able to be selective in hiring staff, and that gave us the opportunity to do that.”
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