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Resort towns feel strain from J-1, other visa restrictions

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Yechenchan, a former Lotus Pad J-1 employee from Malaysia, sorts through fresh ingredients on the kitchen line in 2018. J-1 employees have traditionally been a staple of Big Sky's seasonal workforce, but with the visa program currently suspended, businesses are looking elsewhere to fill vacancies. PHOTO COURTESY OF ALEX OMANIA

Suspensions yet another hurdle for Big Sky employers

By Bella Butler

BIG SKY – Resort towns have long depended on a visiting labor pool from other countries to fill in gaps in the local workforce. Foreign nationals use work visas such as the J-1, designed for students seeking cultural exchange, to visit and gain work experience in these towns doing everything from waiting tables to bumping chairlifts.

But due to a federal suspension on select international employment visas, Big Sky businesses are now forced to seek new solutions this winter season in order to fill what have traditionally totaled nearly 200 staff positions.

On June 22, President Donald Trump issued a proclamation suspending certain immigrant and nonimmigrant visa categories through the end of 2020 in what he says is in the interest of preserving American jobs. This suspension halted a number of visa programs including the J-1 visa program, which placed 184 individuals in Big Sky to work through the 2019-2020 winter season. The U.S. Department of State defines the Big Sky site by zip code.

“It’s an important issue and obviously with a crisis going on it’s flying I think a little below the radar for many, but not for our employers,” said Candace Carr Strauss, CEO of the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and Visit Big Sky. “If we don’t have people who can work in our businesses and provide services to our guests as well as our residents, then we’re kind of out of luck.”

While Big Sky Resort officials say J-1 workers comprise a small fraction of its staff, in years past the resort has played host and sponsor to additional J-1 visa holders, which includes providing them with housing. Other local businesses, particularly restaurants, have been able to take advantage of this work force, often providing secondary employment for these visa holders.

“A big part of that J-1 visa program is housing those employees,” Carr Strauss said. “Not all small businesses have the ability to provide housing for their employees and so any pressure on the system of hiring workers that can be alleviated by this process, whereby entities like Big Sky Resort can provide employee housing, therefore frees up that labor force for our small businesses.”

Alex Omania, owner of the Lotus Pad Thai restaurant in Big Sky, said she historically employs a dozen or so J-1 visa holders from Big Sky Resort each season at her restaurant. This year, due to the suspension, no J-1 visa holders are lined up for work anywhere in Big Sky.

In resort communities that depend on seasonal tourism, the labor market takes on different nuance, in addition to housing scarcity, that isn’t present in other areas of the country. Carr Strauss noted Big Sky’s summer and winter season schedules don’t typically line up with the schedules of college students, eliminating that potential workforce. 

Across the country in parallel destination community Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, Nancy Gardella, executive director of the island’s chamber of commerce, echoed Carr Strauss’s claim. Gardella says that places with smaller resident populations and high labor demand due to tourism struggle to find adequate local labor.

“We don’t have Americans coming for these jobs,” she said. “It’s not because they’re a lot of hideous jobs, it’s because we don’t have enough human beings living here.” Gardella added that the suspension, aimed to protect American jobs, is perhaps blind to communities like Martha’s Vineyard that struggle with different labor dynamics.

“If we don’t have people who can work in our businesses and provide services to our guests as well as our residents, then we’re kind of out of luck.”

– Candace Carr Strauss, CEO of the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and Visit Big Sky

With this novel hitch in an already slim workforce, equally novel solutions are shining through. On average, Big Sky Resort reports that J-1 visa holders make up less than 5 percent of the resort’s total workforce, and the absence of strong dependency on an international employee base affords the resort a “solid outlook on staffing for the upcoming winter season,” according to Troy Nedved, Big Sky Resort’s general manager. 

“This year, we have seen a strong response from domestic applicants interested in working at Big Sky Resort,” Nedved wrote in an email to EBS. “We expect that trend to continue—especially as many college students are taking a gap year and choosing to spend a year in the mountains instead.”

Mackenzie Cole, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s benefits and compliances manager, articulated a similar trend in the employment paradigm at the Wyoming resort. 

“Our experience in this upcoming winter is that we’re actually quite fortunate with the change of tide that we are seeing that college students that are working remotely or college-aged students that are taking a gap year are applying for our company where our staffing numbers are looking great for this winter,” Cole said.

Small businesses in Big Sky are seeking different solutions. At the beginning of 2020 Omania began looking into hosting her own visa holders rather than employing those hosted by the resort to avoid scheduling conflicts with the visa holders’ primary employer. Following the president’s June proclamation, Omania, with the help of an immigration attorney, began the process of obtaining H-2B visas, another nonimmigrant visa program suspended by the proclamation.  

The president’s proclamation allows for certain exemptions to the suspension, including one for foreign workers entering the U.S. to perform temporary labor or services essential to the country’s food supply chain. Under this exemption, Omania has obtained five H2-B visas which she can use to host five new employees.

Though Omania described the process as cumbersome and expensive—roughly $8,000 for the initial paperwork alone—the benefits of a guaranteed workforce, albeit limited, outweigh the alternative. During July and August, she said she lost as much as 6,000 every day the restaurant was closed. 

“For me, it makes more sense to get the visa myself and to pay the fees, which are pretty high, than to have to close the restaurant because no one will show up for work,” she said, “or lose money because we have to shut takeout [food options] off because we don’t have enough people to cook.”

On Oct. 1, a judge in a federal district court in California issued a preliminary injunction preventing further implementation of the June 22 proclamation resulting from a civil suit filed by a number of organizations against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 

This injunction allows applicants—those sponsored by or petitioning through one of the plaintiff groups—to no longer be subject to the entry restrictions. For those not included in the civil suit, the suspension will expire on Dec. 31 provided the proclamation isn’t extended into the new year. 

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