Earlier this week, President Donald Trump suspended several temporary work visas through the end of the year, which could hurt the ski industry in the Mountain West.
Thousands of college students work in ski towns in the U.S. through the J-1 Summer Work Travel program. Students from the southern hemisphere arrive in early December for the winter, and students from Europe come during the summer months.
“They work in lodging, they’re chair lift operators and attendants, so they’re really critical," said Dave Byrd, the director of risk and regulatory affairs for the National Ski Areas Association based in Lakewood, Colorado.
In 2018, nearly 700 J-1 Summer Work Travel students were employed in Idaho, and the majority of them worked for Sun Valley Resort.
The Trump administration is pausing applications for the J-1 visa through the end of the year, along with other visa programs that employ tech and non-agricultural workers. The move is intented to save jobs for Americans when unemployment is high.
Ski resorts want to hire Americans, Byrd said, but the workers aren’t always nearby.
“Most of our ski areas — whether it’s Jackson Hole or Big Sky — these are located in remote, rural communities where they’re not close to labor pools," Byrd said.
The Ski Areas Association is working with state and federal partners to push for an exception, so businesses can use this visa program this ski season. Resorts usually start filling out visa applications for the winter season in August or September.
“Even with high unemployment, we’re still not going to be able to fill all of our positions this winter without access to J-1 visas,” Byrd said
That’s a problem, he said, because rural tourism communities, including in Idaho, have been hit hard by the pandemic. And J-1 visa workers help keep the lifts, hotels and restaurants running.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
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