Urh Vodopivec is a 24-year-old ski instructor and student from Slovenia. He's been traveling to Tahoe the last two summers to work seasonal jobs at restaurants. He's one of about 300,000 people, many of whom are college students, visiting the U.S. each year on J-1 visas, which are designed as cultural exchange work permits for short-term foreign visitors.
"I would love to come back in the winter to teach skiing," says Vodopivec. "But right now, it's too hard to get a visa."
Ski towns rely heavily on these visas to fill seasonal jobs—an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 J-1 workers are employed at ski resorts nationwide each winter, according to the National Ski Areas Associations. Yet tightening governmental restrictions on foreign visas may make it harder for ski resorts and other ski town employers to continue hiring these short-term international employees.
"Nobody who lives here wants these seasonal jobs. So we wouldn't be able to function without the J-1s. We'd be horribly understaffed," says Danielle Kenney, the human resource manager at Sunnyside Restaurant and Lodge on the west shore of Lake Tahoe, which hired 50 J-1 visa employees this summer, including Vodopivec.
"Nobody who lives here wants these seasonal jobs. So we wouldn't be able to function without the J-1s. We'd be horribly understaffed."
The National Ski Areas Association is pushing hard to encourage Congress to save the J-1 visa program, which could be in jeopardy under the Trump Administration, and to boost the H-2B visa, which is designated for temporary, non-agriculture workers, to help alleviate hiring crises at ski resorts around the U.S.
Resorts big and small are having a hard time finding employees—due to a mix of rural locations far from urban areas, housing shortages in resort communities, and the fact that locals don't want these seasonal, short-term jobs. "This isn't just Vail, Jackson Hole, and Aspen that rely on these visas," says Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs for the National Ski Areas Association. "We're also talking about small ski areas in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, in the mountains of North Carolina, and in rural Wisconsin. Plus, the big ski resorts in Colorado, Utah, California, Vermont. It's all over the country where we have ski resorts relying on these workers."
President Trump is allegedly eyeing an executive order that could overhaul or eliminate the J-1 visa, among other cultural exchange programs, in an attempt to promote hiring more Americans to fill these seasonal jobs, according to a story published in the Wall Street Journal in late August.
"NSAA is working with other J-1 visa stakeholders to make sure that any changes to the program by the White House allow for the public to comment on those proposed changes. There has to be public feedback to prevent the White House from eliminating the J-1 program with the stroke of a pen in an executive order," says Byrd. "The J-1 visas are absolutely critical to a lot of seasonal businesses in remote and rural areas, especially in the ski industry."
H2-B visas were more popular at ski resorts until about five years ago, when tighter regulations made those visas less appealing to employers. For 2017, Congress limited the number of H-2B visas in the U.S. to 66,000 a year, but this summer, the Department of Homeland Security announced a one-time increase of 15,000 additional H-2B visas for the rest of this fiscal year, ending in September, for American companies that could prove they were likely to suffer severe financial loss without the ability to hire H2-B workers. That boost could help some ski resorts, says Byrd.
Killington Resort, in Vermont, hires about 90 J-1 and 90 H2-B visa holders each winter, roughly 10 percent of their 1,800-person winter staff. "We work hard on local and regional recruiting, but even with that we are not able to fill all of our positions locally," says Mike Solimano, president and general manager of Killington Resort. "Our J-1 and H2-B team members are critical to our ability to operate the resort. Without these supplemental team members, we could not keep all of our outlets open and maintain our stellar reputation." Solimano added that they are opposed to any policy that would reduce or eliminate the J-1 visa program.
At Crested Butte, Colorado, around 10 percent of the winter staff are visitors with J-1 visas. Which means if J-1s are limited, it will have an impact on the resort's ability to fill positions on the mountain. "The J-1 program offers a cultural exchange component to supplement our local and U.S. staff," says Zach Pickett, communications coordinator for Crested Butte Mountain Resort. "We do support the program and continuation of the program. We see it as a win-win for the resort and the students, who are primarily visiting from South America."
As for Vodopivec, the student from Slovenia, he hopes he gets to keep coming back to America. This summer, he had a chance to ski lift-accessed snow at Squaw Valley on the 4th of July.
"I would be really bummed if I couldn't come back. I love coming here," he says. "For now, America is accepting of all people. But with closing visa programs, you are closing your borders. We know the J-1 visa doesn't represent any threat to America. We're just seasonal workers."