One-time increase of H-2B visas approved
The ski resort industry on Monday celebrated Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly’s approval of a onetime increase in the number of H-2B visas for seasonal workers, but the bump in temporary employees likely will be gone by the time ski season arrives.
“This is an ongoing battle. We won this battle, but the ongoing war continues,” said Dave Byrd, the director of regulatory affairs for the National Ski Areas Association, which sent a letter this spring to Kelly urging him to grow the number of allowed temporary worker visas. “We are going to continue to hit up Congress for more access to foreign workers because Americans want year-round jobs that come with benefits and we have a lot of seasonal business and need more access to labor.”
As unemployment levels across the country plummet, the resort industry joins amusement park and golf course operators, landscaping and forestry companies and fisheries among seasonal businesses calling for Congress to increase the number of annual H-2B visas beyond the cap of 66,000. Kelly, who
had received discretionary authority from Congress to temporarily increase the number of worker visas for nonfarm workers, announced Monday he was adding 15,000 H-2B visas for fiscal 2017.
The increase represents a 45 percent bump from the number of H-2B visas normally issued for the second half of the fiscal year, said senior Homeland Security officials in a call with reporters.
Businesses can begin applying for the visas this week, but must first attest that their firms would suffer permanent “irreparable harm” without importing foreign workers. They will be required to retain documents proving that they would not otherwise be able to meet their contractual obligations, or provide other evidence of severe financial loss, the officials said.
But Byrd said the visas will likely be gone by October, the start of fiscal 2018 and the time when ski resort operators are ramping up for winter. He’s not sure if any resort operators will take advantage of the program. H-2B visas have fallen out of favor among resort operators in recent years as increased regulation and rules make the program less appealing. The National Ski Areas Association is lobbying Congress to not just increase the number of allowed visas, but ease those regulations, specifically the requirement that employers pay travel expenses for foreign workers and deliver at least 35 hours a week of work to H-2B visa employees.
For a resort operator hiring, say, Jamaican lift operators, the travel expenses can pile up. And in a slow winter, where snow might not be piling up, it can be a challenge to keep workers on the payroll for 35 hours a week.
“Part of our broader goal is to get these regulations relaxed,” Byrd said. “The increase has made it slightly easier for us going forward but the number of onerous regulations makes the H-2B program extremely difficult for small businesses to use.”
Even with the hassles, resort operators are looking anew at H-2B visas. With Colorado’s 31 ski areas hosting almost 13 million annual visits, resort operators in Pitkin, Summit, Eagle and Grand counties are scrambling for workers as unemployment rates reach historic lows.
The H-2B visa program is a political hot button that both Democrats and Republicans have blasted, arguing the program takes jobs away from Americans. Opponents argue that an increase in H-2B visas could make employers less inclined to increase pay to lure unemployed Americans into lower-skilled jobs.
“This is yet another example of the administration and Congress failing to keep the Trump campaign promise of putting American workers first,” read a Monday statement from Roy Beck, the founder and president of Numbers USA, which lobbies for lower immigration levels in the country.
Trump himself has used H-2B visas to hire temporary workers at his golf resorts in Palm Beach, Fla., and Jupiter, Fla.
“I’ve hired in Florida during the prime season — you could not get help,” Trump said during a 2015 primary debate. “Everybody agrees with me on that. They were part-time jobs. You needed them, or we just might as well close the doors, because you couldn’t get help in those hot, hot sections of Florida.”
The Washington Post contributed to this report.
Stephen Faulkner, left, owner of Faulkner’s Landscaping & Nursery, works on a project with Gonsalo Garcia and Jalen Murchison in Manchester, N.H. Business owners say they’re struggling to find seasonal help.