As the Trump administration pushes its "America First" agenda, Colorado's ski industry looks on nervously, worried that policy shifts could be bad for business.
Representatives with the National Ski Areas Association will be in Washington, D.C., this week to lobby against the president's reported interest in rolling back the J-1 visa program. State executives plan to tag along; they say the program, which sends foreign students to work temporarily in the U.S., is vital in filling jobs that are otherwise tough to fill on the mountains.
The issue comes into focus as unemployment rates drop around the country, raising the pressure on seasonal companies to find people willing to take short-term work. While landscaping employers, for example, continue to rely on a similar visa program, H-2B, the ski industry has embraced the J-1 visa with its less complicated requirements.
Dave Byrd, the National Ski Areas Association's director of regulatory affairs, estimated the number of J-1 workers on the nation's slopes has doubled in the last five years in light of the H-2B changes. The industry says it uses between 7,000 and 8,000 J-1 workers, with a big portion of them in Colorado's high country where more skiers go than anywhere in the world.
The state also happens to have one of the nation's lowest unemployment rates at 2.3 percent.
"Some of the hiring challenges have just gotten really acute as Colorado as a whole is prospering and the economy continues to roar along," said Melanie Mills, president of Colorado Ski Country, the trade group representing 23 of the state's resorts. "People who want work want year-around work, not seasonal work, and we're finding people not willing to relocate for it. We need to fill out these positions to have a vibrant, functioning industry."
J-1 employees come mostly from South America, she said, and can be found beside lift switches or behind concession counters and ticket stands. Many work in lodges.
While some resorts don't sponsor any visiting students, others consider them significant to their workforce. Whether from South America or other Southern Hemisphere countries, ski season here coincides with summer breaks from school there.
A Vail Resorts Inc. spokeswoman said the visa holders every year represent about 10 percent of winter staffs at all of the company's Western resorts, including Breckenridge, Beaver Creek and Keystone. Crested Butte Mountain Resort reported the same figure. "They're an integral, behind-the-scenes part of what we do," said Zach Pickett, that resort's communications coordinator.
About 45 international students find work at Copper Mountain Resort in Summit County, which is home to four ski areas and a 1.3 percent unemployment rate. The visa holders represent 4 percent of Copper Mountain's staff during the season, spokeswoman Taylor Prather said.
"It's not so much the number that matters, but the value that these J-1 workers bring to our environment and workforce," she said. "We strive for a workforce that is as diverse as our customer base."
Meanwhile, in southwest Colorado, one of the state's smaller ski areas fills its staff almost entirely with locals. Wolf Creek Ski Area, which employs 200 to 400 every winter, has never relied on visas, said executive Rosanne Haidorfer-Pitcher.
"We take pride in the fact that we pay our employees well and try to take care of them," she said, "and having a lot of employees that come back year after year is a feather in our cap. These are people who want to live in the area, and they need to make a living."
Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332