ASPEN - The Aspen Skiing Co. will quit using H2B visas to hire foreign ski and snowboard instructors this winter because of the state of the economy and a ruling by the Obama administration.
The Skico planned to reduce the number of foreign instructors in the special visa program from 109 last season to 57 this season, according to company spokesman Jeff Hanle. But now it won't hire any instructors through H2Bs, he said.
"It's not something we wanted to do," said Hanle, who noted that some of the overseas instructors have worked for the Skico for years. "They're valuable employees."
The planned reduction to 57 foreign instructors was a response to the recession. The Skico decided to hire more instructors domestically because of the high rate of unemployment in the country and in the Roaring Fork Valley, Hanle said.
That plan was altered after last month's ruling by the U.S. Department of Labor to force U.S. employers using the H2B visa program to reimburse foreign workers for their travel costs. That would have added thousands of dollars of expenses in air fares for the Skico.
Melanie Mills, president and CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA, a state trade association, said the ruling affects several larger resorts.
"It makes it hard to make the economics work when you're flying in people from the far reaches of the globe," Mills said.
She said Colorado Ski Country's members are frustrated that there is a new issue to contend with on the employment front at a time when the economy presents enough challenges. Positions will still be filled, she said, but the foreign instructors were a valuable part of the staff for resorts with strong international business.
The Denver-based National Ski Areas Association is exploring how to best challenge the labor department's ruling, which was made in August, according to Dave Byrd, director of education and risk. "It's a big deal," he said.
The ski areas association is working with a variety of other organizations and industries affected by the ruling. It affects farmers who bring in workers to harvest crops, the hotel industry, golf courses and other businesses. It might hit ski areas hardest, Byrd noted. Farmers often use H2B visas to bring in workers from Mexico or Central America to pick strawberries or another crop. The ski industry typically uses the visas to bring in instructors from Europe, Australia and South America.
"The fact is, it can be prohibitively expensive," Byrd said.
Mills agreed. "We're not talking about a couple of bus tickets," she said.
For the Aspen Skiing Co., hiring overseas employees was a way to add international flair to a resort that attracts international clientele. Ski instructors with foreign language skills could speak the native tongue of some visiting students.
H2B visas are temporary employment permits that are obtained by employers who then go out and recruit workers to fill the positions. The workers are beholden to that specific employer for a set amount of time.
The Skico used about 400 permit for workers of all types during the 2007-08 ski season. That fell to 200 permits last winter when the number of visas available nationally was capped.
Hanle said the H2B visas used for instructors fell from 119 two seasons ago to 109 last winter. Although there will be no instructors employed through H2B visas in 2009-10, Hanle was uncertain whether or not the visas will be used to fill other positions, like at The Little Nell hotel. The Skico's human resources staff was in an all-day meeting and unavailable for comment.
It is highly unlikely the company will pay air fare costs to hire a chairlift operator from overseas when the position can be filled with a worker from the U.S., Hanle said.
As for the ski schools, he was uncertain if 57 domestic instructors will be hired to offset loss of those that would have been hired under the H2B program. Some of the instructors from overseas might be able to come to the U.S. with other work permits, he said.