Sugarbush Resort in Vermont is gearing up for a busy winter season, but the effort to host hundreds of guests is matched by the need to increase hires, both domestic and foreign.
Leaving the winter months, the entrepreneurs prepared for staff to return and prepare for the busy summer season, as tourists headed to beach towns, amusement parks and resorts after a year. devastating. Instead, some workers chose not to return, highlighting a shortage of workforce across the United States.
“There is a new sense of urgency about it,” said Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer and head of strategic advocacy for the US Chamber of Commerce. “It was a problem before the pandemic. It is a crisis now that we are coming out of the pandemic.”
The resorts preparing for the winter season took notice.
In recent weeks, Sugarbush announced raising the minimum wage and expanding benefits to attract American workers. Still, the resort will have to supplement its staff with people from abroad, a process that has been hampered by delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic and increased demand.
“One of the current problems is that this whole process is taking a little longer, either because embassies are closed or because hours and staff are limited,” said John Bleh, Sugarbush’s director of public relations and communications. “This whole process was delayed.”
Visa for foreign workers, a process that was already long
The process for employers to obtain visas to bring in workers from abroad is already long and cumbersome and requires extensive planning. On the one hand, the number of temporary worker visas is limited and spread over the seasons (spring and summer, and autumn and winter), and can be expensive.
The arduous process, coupled with the growing demand for foreign workers, is posing a challenge for employers looking to strengthen their workforce.
“Our immigration system is so outdated and unresponsive to the needs of the 21st century that it is literally causing economic harm to our country,” said Charles Kuck, an Atlanta-based immigration attorney who has been receiving numerous calls from employers who they try to get guest worker visas. “I think employers are realizing that ‘I’m not going to get these people back.'”
Ski resorts relied on foreign workers before. In December 2019, a survey of 137 ski areas revealed that nearly 52% of those areas used some form of foreign labor, according to the National Ski Areas Association. The most common visas were J-1s, which provide short-term visas for students, for example, and H-2Bs for temporary non-agricultural workers.
Slowness grows in the current context
But this year, slow processing and possible vaccination requirements are making it difficult to obtain those visas.
“This is a huge challenge for us, given the fluctuating covid situation and the vaccine situation,” said Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs for the National Ski Area Association.
Ski resorts have tried to staff themselves with the United States, but are running into obstacles, such as accommodation costs exacerbated by the pandemic, demand for labor and rising wages, Byrd added.
The H-2B visa allows employers to bring foreign workers to the United States for temporary non-agricultural jobs, such as gardening, hospitality and other workers. Congress sets a cap on the number of visas allowed per fiscal year. Currently, that cap is 66,000, with 33,000 for workers who start work between October 1 and March 31, and 33,000 for employees between April 1 and September 30.
“It’s a race for those 33,000 visas,” said Jeff Joseph, a Colorado-based immigration attorney.
“Employers are submitting more applications than in the past and that is directly related to unemployment. Where before they could find more workers, now there is a difficulty,” he added, noting that obtaining a visa is an extensive process and is not a easy or simple alternative for those looking for employees.
Recognizing the increased demand for labor, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced in April that it would make an additional 22,000 visas available for temporary non-agricultural workers.
“The H-2B program is designed to help American employers fill temporary seasonal jobs, while safeguarding the livelihoods of American workers,” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said at the time in a release. US companies that rely on the program during the summer months expressed a need for more temporary guest workers, according to DHS.
Incentives to hire workers
The fight for workers extends to a number of industries, such as the construction sector, which lost more than a million workers when the industry was temporarily shut down during the pandemic.
Although the sector has since regained an overwhelming share of its workforce, in June it was still below pre-pandemic levels.
Businesses of all kinds are taking steps to attract more workers. Companies like Under Armor, Amazon, and Walmart have raised their minimum wage, and smaller companies are offering incentives, too.
That’s the hope of Sugarbush, which is rolling out its own set of incentives as it prepares for the busy winter months ahead.
“We’ve had trouble hiring people and we think this is a good way to get people into the workforce,” Bleh said.
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