INS rides to Skico’s rescue by approving special visas |

INS rides to Skico’s rescue by approving special visas

Just when Aspen Skiing Co. officials reached for the panic button over an employee shortage, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service rode to the rescue.

Skico officials feared they were going to get caught short-handed because the INS was taking so long to approve the vast majority of special worker visas the company sought, according to Jim Laing, Skico vice president of human resources.

The Skico applied for 180 visas through the H2B program this season. That program – which is being heavily relied on by the skiing and tourism industries – allows employers to apply for visas if they can demonstrate efforts to hire domestic workers were fruitless.

The employer receives the visas and the workers can only stay in the U.S. as long as they work for that employer. The Skico was using the visas primarily to fill positions like lift operators. Foreign workers often also use J-1 visas, which they obtain themselves to work in the U.S. for a specific time.

As of Monday morning, only 43 of the 180 H2B visas the Skico sought had been approved. The company was anxiously awaiting word on 137 other applications.

“Every day, two times a day, we’re calling the INS,” said Laing. But it was frustrating because his department could only get through to recorded messages at the INS’s processing center in Lincoln, Neb.

Skico officials contacted U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis’ office seeking help. They also consulted with a labor attorney in Denver who informed them that INS delays were affecting the entire Colorado ski industry.

Laing said he also reached an INS official in person in Denver last week who listened to the company’s plight.

Despite those various efforts, it appeared nothing was going to help, at least not for the early season. Senior Skico managers met late Monday afternoon to come up with an alternative plan to relying on the foreign workers.

They decided their only choice was to renew efforts to “tap the existing work force,” said Mike Kaplan, vice president of mountain operations. The Skico was going to promote its referral program, where employees receive cash rewards for referring new employees who stick with the company. They were also prepared to offer incentives to salaried employees in return for working extra shifts on the mountains.

But as that meeting broke up Monday evening, Skico officials learned from an INS recording that most of their remaining applications for H2B visas had been approved.

“I can sleep again,” said Laing.

He said all but 17 H2B visas applications were approved Monday. His department fired off e-mail messages to workers in countries around the world who had already interviewed via the Internet. The Skico informed them the visas had been approved, and they should make arrangements to come to the U.S.

A majority of the employees participating through the H2B program are from New Zealand and Australia, but they come from all over, according to Laing. A handful of the employees are returning veterans, and several have housing being held for them by the company.

Although there are still positions remaining to be filled, Laing said the Skico is in pretty good shape finding the approximately 2,800 mountain operation employees it needs at peak times.

“At this point, we feel we’ll have coverage over the holidays,” he said.

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