Ski resorts struggle to hire amid Trump’s student visa ban

 Milagros Sotelo was looking forward to traveling from South America to Tennessee to start a job at Ober Gatlinburg ski resort this winter. The 22-year-old student worked the last two ski seasons in the equipment rental shop at the small resort nestled in the Smoky Mountains and was excited to reconnect with friends, practice her English and take a break from law school in Lima, Peru, where she lives.

But on June 22, President Trump signed an executive order temporarily barring a wide variety of foreign worker visas, including J-1 visas often issued to South American students who come to North America during their summer break. Sotelo’s plans were put on hold, and now she’s scrambling to find a job closer to home.

As ski resorts try to figure out how to operate safely during the coronavirus pandemic, by requiring facemasks, enforcing social distancing in lift lines, and eliminating dine-in service, Trump’s order has added another obstacle heading into the winter: hiring enough temporary workers to fill crucial jobs like operating chair lifts, serving food and cleaning hotel rooms.

Trump argued foreigners pose a risk to American workers as the country tries to jumpstart its economy.

“American workers compete against foreign nationals for jobs in every sector of our economy, including against millions of aliens who enter the United States to perform temporary work,” according to the order, which is set to expire at the end of the year.

But Sotelo said there are plenty of jobs to go around, especially at and near ski resorts.

Many industry leaders agree, saying that even with Trump’s order in place, it’s difficult to fill seasonal jobs with domestic workers.

“A big part of the reason is — and this is true even during COVID — most Americans want a year-round job. They don’t want a revolving-door-type job,” said Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs at the National Ski Areas Association.

Byrd said between 7,000 and 8,000 J-1 workers fill jobs at many of the country’s 470 ski areas every winter. Another 1,000 to 2,000 workers come to U.S. resorts on H-2B visas, which are also barred by Trump’s order. In total, foreign guest workers make up between 5% and 10% of the workforce at U.S. ski resorts, according to Byrd, who calls it “a critical amount.”

According to an NSAA report released in July, just over half of 202 U.S. ski resorts polled said they had trouble hiring a full workforce during the 2019-2020 winter season, and an average of 44 jobs went unfilled. The report said 27% of ski areas were understaffed in the summer, and an average of 21 jobs went unfilled.

Many seasonal jobs don’t offer benefits such as health insurance or retirement plans, Byrd said, and it’s even harder to recruit domestic workers because ski resorts are often in rural areas with expensive housing.

“Certainly in Western destination resorts, it is an enormous challenge for us to find workers because of the cost of housing in fancy destination ski venues — Vail, Crested Butte, Telluride, Taos, Jackson Hole, Big Sky, Sun Valley, Lake Tahoe,” he said.

Vail Resorts, which owns 33 ski areas in the U.S. and has historically relied on foreign workers, is recruiting more aggressively in local communities for the upcoming season and is seeing some interest among college students who have more flexibility because they are learning remotely or are taking a gap year because of the pandemic.

“We have already ramped up winter season recruiting efforts and have been pleased with the results so far,” said Vail Resorts spokesman Ryan Huff, who declined to say how many foreign workers the Colorado-based company hires for a typical winter season. Huff noted that Vail Resorts could pursue a “limited number” of foreign workers if and when the restrictions are lifted to help staff the remainder of the season.

But smaller resorts that aren’t as well known are sweating opening day.

At Ober Gatlinburg, September and October are spent recruiting student workers like Sotelo from places like Brazil, Peru, and the Dominican Republic. This year, it could be difficult to fill the 150 jobs that typically go to foreign workers.

According to the NSAA, an average of 85 jobs went unfilled last winter season at resorts in the region that includes Tennessee, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina — in large part because of their remote locations.

“We’ve experienced this for many, many years, but it’s become very critical now,” said Jerry Huskey, a risk manager at Ober Gatlinburg who has worked in the resort’s human resources department for more than two decades.

He said that if the order remains in place, the resort, which typically employs about 500 workers, might have to cut operating hours and close some of its restaurants this season. In the meantime, the resort is touting increased hourly wages to entice workers and has had some success recruiting out-of-work convention staff from Florida.

Huskey started recruiting foreign workers on J-1 visas in the mid-1990s after an improving economy made it harder to attract Americans. About a dozen foreigners worked at the resort initially, and the numbers grew season over the season as the area grew and competition for help intensified.

“It’s a good exchange of information and cultures. ... They want to see what goes on in the U.S. They’ve never been here before, so they’re really losing out on that aspect and we’re losing out on having them,” Huskey said of the current situation.

The NSAA and ski resorts across the country were keeping a close eye on two federal lawsuits challenging Trump’s order — one in Washington D.C. and the other in the Northern District of California. The D.C. judge kept in place Trump’s ban on J-1 and H-2B visas, so now the ski industry is pinning its hopes on the California judge throwing out the directive.

“That would be the first hurdle, of course. Beyond that, the countries would have to open up to travel, and then they would also have to be willing to come here with this virus going on,” Huskey said. “It’s a little sketchy and so many hurdles to get across right now.”

U.S. restaurants are moving warily into fall, hoping their slow recovery persists despite the new challenge of chilly weather and a pandemic that’s expected to claim even more lives.

New York opens indoor dining on Wednesday, restricting capacity to 25%. San Francisco may do the same as early as this week. Chicago is raising its indoor capacity from 25% to 40% on Thursday but says restaurants still can’t seat more than 50 people in one room.

It’s a dose of reality for an industry that was able to stem at least some of its losses by pivoting to outdoor dining this summer, setting up tables and chairs on sidewalks and parking lots, and offering some semblance of normalcy.

But as temperatures start to slide in many parts of the country, restaurants will have to coax patrons to come back inside, and it’s anyone’s guess how many actually will. That could spell trouble for an industry that has already lost nearly 100,000 U.S. restaurants — or 1 in 6 — since the start of the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association. The future remains uncertain for thousands more.

“We’re all a little apprehensive, but that was the case when we started outdoor dining, too,” said Samantha DiStefano, owner of Mama Fox, a restaurant and bar in Brooklyn.

Mama Fox can only seat 18 people inside at 25% capacity, so DiStefano will still rely heavily on her 14 outdoor tables. She thinks many New York restaurants won’t open indoor dining until the limit reaches 50% because they can’t cover their costs at 25%.

In the meantime, Mama Fox and others are trying to figure out how to extend the outdoor dining season using space heaters, tents, temporary igloos, and even blankets. Heat lamps are already in short supply.

Restaurants are also promoting delivery and carryout. Nearly 70% of 3,500 restaurants surveyed in September by the National Restaurant Association said they added curbside takeout during the pandemic; 54% added delivery.

Philip Moseley, co-owner of Blue Oak BBQ in New Orleans, said carryout demand has risen from 10% of sales before the pandemic to 50% now.

Blue Oak BBQ’s dining room is open at half capacity, or about 20 people. But a tent in the parking lot seats 80. That’s enough traffic that the restaurant was able to hire back all 50 employees.

“You do anything you have to do to make the food work, to make the experience work, to get butts in seats,” Moseley said.

Although fall in New Orleans is ideal for outdoor dining, tourists are scarce and the usual round of festivals won’t happen this year.

“Every day has a new set of struggles,” co-owner Ronnie Evans said.

Seventy percent of U.S. restaurants are independent, but chains are hurting too. NPC International, the largest franchisee of both Pizza Hut and Wendy’s, filed for bankruptcy protection in July.

Steve Nikolakakos closed one of his three Manhattan restaurants because his landlord wouldn’t give him a break on the rent. Another, Gracie’s Diner, closed for two months in March after two employees died of the coronavirus.

Even with outdoor seating, the diner is only making 65% of what it did before the pandemic, he said. Still, that’s better than May, when he was doing only 30% of his usual business.

“This is the worst thing I have ever seen,” said Nikolakakos, a 40-year veteran of the industry.

Il Carino, a tiny Italian restaurant in Manhattan, is reopening its dining room with just 12 seats. Outdoor seating has recaptured only about 30% of the restaurant’s business, and it has had to lay off 13 workers, said Giolio Alvarez, the restaurant’s manager.

Alvarez said customers are asking for heat lamps, but the restaurant doesn’t know if they’re worth the extra money. And increasing menu prices is off the table.

“How are we going to increase prices?” he said. “Everyone is broke.”

Monthly U.S. restaurant sales hit their lowest point in April, when they plunged to $30 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That was less than half the amount of restaurants made a year earlier. Sales steadily improved as lockdowns ended, carryout demand picked up, and states allowed to-go alcohol. U.S. restaurant sales hit $55 billion in August, but that’s still $10 billion less than last year.

Some waiters and kitchen staff have gone back to work. Restaurant employment rose by 3.6 million people over the four months ending in August, according to government data. Still, there were 2.5 million fewer U.S. restaurant workers in August compared to February. September’s unemployment numbers are due out Friday.

Mario Sandoval, an unemployed server from Las Vegas, appeared before a U.S. House committee last week to urge lawmakers to restart monthly stimulus checks. He also wants a guarantee that he can return to his job when his restaurant reopens.

“I’m worried about the economy crashing again,” he said.

On Wednesday, some restaurant workers in Washington planned to strike, saying they can’t survive on subminimum wages and tips that are a fraction of what they used to be because of capacity limits. The workers, backed by the group One Fair Wage, want lawmakers to guarantee minimum wages for restaurant workers.

But even if restaurants rehire staff, reopen dining rooms or shell out $1,000 for a fiberglass igloo, there are no guarantee customers will return.

Nancy Chapman used to eat out often, at restaurants near her College Grove, Tennessee, home, and on the road when she traveled to horse shows. But Chapman, 70, who recently retired from her CPA and business management practice, said she isn’t going to restaurants until she is satisfied there is a better understanding of COVID-19 and a clear path to its resolution.

Juliana Gonzalez, 31, of Howard Beach, New York, is also trying to stay safe. She limits her contacts to her parents and her boyfriend, and she has walked out of dining rooms in New Jersey when she felt they were too crowded. But she’s also ready for some normalcy, and she’s eager for dining rooms to reopen in New York.

“I feel that most restaurants are trying to stay open, so most of them are trying their best to be safe,” Gonzalez said.

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