As POWDR resorts look ahead to the upcoming winter season, a lot is up in the air. One unknown is what staffing will look like after the Trump administration's June suspension of new foreign work visas through the end of the year, which bars hundreds of thousands of foreigners from seeking employment in the United States. This includes H-2B (temporary) and J-1 (student) visas, which are integral to staffing seasonal workers in the hospitality industry.
Several POWDR resorts, including Killington/Pico, Copper and Snowbird, rely on such international workers to fill key winter positions and subsidize workforce during peak times. Not only do the programs help fill jobs, they also add unique cultural flair to the overall resort experience. With the ban on visa employees extending through December, resorts are left scrambling to figure out how to fill key positions for the early season, including the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
Donna Gooch, POWDR director of HR, estimates that one-third the typical number of H-2B and J-1 visa employees will be hired across POWDR properties this winter. The change is "profound," says Gooch. "These are folks we really need, who really contribute to resort operations."
For Killington, Copper and Snowbird, that means figuring out alternatives to recruiting and staffing. (British Columbia's SilverStar also utilizes visa workers, says Gooch, however the ban does not affect Canada in the same way.) Each ski area is handling the situation locally, while acknowledging that winter operations for this season are also being worked out given COVID.
Copper typically recruits about 60 seasonal workers from South America through the J-1 program and about 40 H-2B staff from Mexico. Resort HR Director Kelly Renoux estimates this year the resort will hire only about 20 J-1s, who can presumably begin working on Jan. 1, and will only seek out H-2B employees who are currently working in America—the ban does not apply to visa holders who are already in the country.
"We still find that there's value in some key positions, like lift ops and rental/retail, even if they're hired with a shorter timeframe, in terms of diversity and what foreign workers bring to the table," says Renoux. J-1 workers at Copper typically fill these front-line positions, while H-2Bs usually work in F&B.
To fill in any gaps, Renoux says Copper is leveraging current and past employees. The resort recently introduced a new employee referral program, which rewards staff members for each person they recruit. Referring staff can choose from a laundry list of "soft cost" items including free lift tickets and athletic club memberships for each hire they helped facilitate. The program is being promoted through hiring managers in each department.
In general, Renoux says she's not worried about staffing shortages, rather, she anticipates a different makeup. "The difference this year is there's more unemployment in general, so there's more applicant flow," says Renoux. "Traditionally, you get seasonal ski workers. This year, we may get people pushed out of different sectors who might take a season to work their passion job. We'll be able to recruit the staff we need, but it will look different."
Sara Jane Shafter, assistant director of HR at Snowbird, has a slightly different take. The resort uses about 100 H-2B and 30 J-1 employees in a typical season. Shafter anticipates a shortage of interested workers if the resort runs as usual and there are no visa employees.
In early July, Shafter reached out to local temp agencies to inquire about filling housekeeping positions; she was told no temps were available—they'd already been snapped up. Typically in July, Snowbird is in the process of recruiting visa workers to fill key winter housekeeping, kitchen and front-of-house F&B positions. "It's hard, because some of these employees have worked for us for years," says Shafter. "They come back year after year, and many are put in a supervisor role in a seasonal outlet. It's a win-win situation."
Shafter is holding out hope that Snowbird can, like Copper, tap some H-2B workers who are already in the United States working summer jobs at other employers. She also says that the National Ski Areas Association is lobbying for an exception for ski resorts, asking for a Dec. 1 start date for visas, though she's not sure where that stands.
Snowbird plans to use international workers even if they can't start until Jan. 1, says Shafter. But ultimately the question remains: What is business even going to look like then? "We anticipate people are going to want to get out on the mountains and enjoy nature, and we're building staffing models for this, but it's too early to tell," she adds.
Judy Geiger, director of HR for Killington and Pico, says in her experience in questionable times, including in the wake of the 2008 recession, there are never enough local workers in remote mountain areas. "We always find we have to supplement with international workers," says Geiger.
Last season, Killington used about 120 H-2B and 120 J-1 workers to augment its peak season staff of about 1,800. In addition to supplying essential labor, the workers, primarily from Jamaica and Mexico, add exponentially to the resort's culture, says Geiger. "We have even modeled a couple of our food outlets after international staff—one mexican and one jamaican, with traditional recipes from staff, which guests really love. They've really incorporated their culture into ski area operations."
Like the others, Geiger says Killington will be pursuing H-2B workers that are already here working other jobs, assuming the resort is approved for such an in-country transfer. The resort will also rely on employee referrals, focusing at least some energy on college kids who live in Vermont but attend school out of state. "This group will be in a different position this year, with schools sending students home at Thanksgiving," says Geiger. "Theoretically, they'll have a longer break than in a typical year, so we're hoping that will buy us some people to fill the gap."
One thing everyone agrees on: Nothing is certain. Ski area operations this year will be different with Coronavirus and the operational adjustments that are sure to come with it. That said, the ski industry is adaptable. It has to be. "We work with Mother Nature," says Renoux. "We're one of the few industries that's really set up to thrive with this, because we're used to adapting. This is what makes this industry so exciting. It's not all the same 12 months of the year—you have to think on your feet and be entrepreneurial."