Here & There - June 26, 2020

Where'd all the liftees go?

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Where’d all the liftees go?

You’ve seen the nametags and heard the accents — your liftee is from New Zealand, your bartender is from Russia, the person directing traffic is Australian, and the employee storing your skis is from Chile. However, your favorite mountain town might be significantly less multi-cultural next year (and this summer).

President Trump announced sweeping changes to the United States’ visa program, including the suspension of several types of visas through 2020. The order applies to H-1B visas, H-2B visas, H-4 visas, L-1 visas and certain J-1 visas. Ostensibly, the executive order is for “protecting American workers”, but most experts agree that visa workers are an integral part of our economy and this decision will likely have a significant detrimental impact. A quick breakdown.

  • H-1B visas are given to skilled workers. These are extremely common in the tech industry and this change is likely to have a large impact on workforces as well as initiate/exacerbate a knowledge drain to other countries that is already occurring.

  • H2-B visas are for seasonal workers.

  • H-4 visas are for the spouses of H1-B or H2-B visa holders.

  • J-1 visas are for students

  • L-1 visas are for executives transferring to a US office within the same company

This proves a serious issue for the tourism industry, which relies on J-1 and H2-B visa holders shore up a lack of supply. I think there’s somewhat of a misinformed notion that the talent pool for seasonal workers at ski resorts and in mountain towns is an unlimited supply of adventure-seeking and ok-with-low-pay dirtbags.

The reality is different. Most mountain towns often struggle to staff their resorts and businesses due to a lack of housing, rising housing costs, and the lack of access to a larger worker pool geographically. For example, even as unemployment rates in popular ski towns in Colorado hit record lows, there was still a staffing shortage. Last year, (even before COVID was an issue), more than half of ski areas around the country were able to reach full employment.

  • The ski industry uses ~10,000 J1 and H2-B visas each year — the average number of unfilled jobs per resort was 45.

  • Some smaller resorts (particularly in the Northeast) with less staffing demands already hire mostly locally and will be less hard hit, although mega-resort hotspots like Colorado, Utah, and Tahoe will have serious issues.

  • In Park City, foreign workers can make up anywhere between 25-50% of the labor force during the winter

  • Nearly 700 J1 workers come to Idaho in the summer, most of which work at Sun Valley

  • Places like Cape Cod are unable to staff their businesses — “We’ve never had enough people to fill these jobs,” a local business owner said. “We’ll get through this, but it’s definitely not easy, and without the J-1s it’s pretty ridiculous.”

With businesses already plagued by low visitation in the spring due to COVID, even tourist-focused economies that are just barely starting to recover will be hard hit by this unexpected development.

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Stay safe, stay healthy. As always, feel free to reach out with ideas, feedback, or stuff you think I should talk about via email, Instagram, or Twitter.

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