Sen. Udall seeks review of worker visa program
ASPEN – Sen. Mark Udall wants the federal government to increase oversight of a popular guest worker program that is widely used in ski resorts to make sure employers aren’t abusing it at the expense of U.S. workers.
Udall, a Colorado Democrat, sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this week expressing concern about the government’s supervision of the Exchange Visitor Program and asking for a report about what the agency does to prevent abuse.
“Colorado leads the nation in the number of foreign students employed through this program,” Udall’s office noted in a press release.
The program allows students to obtain J1 visas to come to the U.S. to work for a short amount of time. The program was designed to promote educational and cultural exchange.
Employers that hire foreign workers through the program aren’t supposed to use it to avoid hiring qualified U.S. workers. “However, recent news and government reviews have raised numerous questions about the program, suggesting that foreign students are being hired instead of Americans for seasonal jobs at resorts, national parks and other venues – at a time when unemployment among youth is at record highs,” Udall said in a statement.
Udall didn’t identify any specific employers or industries as his cause for concern.
“At this point, I’m simply following up on reports of weak oversight of the program,” Udall said in a statement provided to The Aspen Times. “I’m asking for a review to see what measures the State Department has taken to ensure that the proper guidelines are being upheld for hiring through the J-Visa visitors program, and that American workers are not inadvertently hurt.
“As long as the visa sponsors are following the guidelines of the J-Visa visitors program, they shouldn’t have cause for concern.”
Aspen Skiing Co. consistently employs about 25 workers in its hospitality division through the program, according to Sally Spaulding, public relations manager for Skico’s hospitality division. The workers are employed primarily in food and beverage positions at Ajax Tavern and Montagna, the restaurant at The Little Nell hotel, she said.
Students are recruited from hospitality schools in Mexico City, Switzerland and Spain, Spaulding said. The foreign workers are passionate about their careers and eager to learn about the food and beverage industry in Aspen, she said. They are sought to add an “international flair” to a property that attracts many international guests, Spaulding said.
It couldn’t be determined Wednesday how many positions are filled in Skico’s mountain operations through J1 visas, according to spokesman Jeff Hanle. He said Jim Laing, Skico’s vice president of human resources, was on vacation so the information on visa use wasn’t available.
Skico has traditionally relied on a different guest worker program to fill positions during times when domestic labor was difficult to find. It used roughly 200 H-2B visas during the 2009-10 season and 2008-09 season. Prior to the recession, it used about 400 H-2B visas to fill positions during the 2007-08 season, according to statistics previously provided by the company. It curtailed use of foreign workers last season because of the high level of unemployment in the U.S.
During the boom years of the last decade, when labor was difficult to find, as much as 26 percent of Skico’s season staff has been from outside the U.S., Laing told The New York Times in February 2010. During the 2009-10 season, only 15 percent of seasonal workers were from outside the U.S., he said.
Udall typically works closely with the ski industry on legislation and issues involving the federal government. It was uncertain Wednesday if his request was a surprise to Colorado Ski Country USA, a state trade group, or the National Ski Areas Association, a national trade group. The staff members that track legislative and government issues were out of their offices, representatives of both organizations said.
In his letter to Clinton, Udall said he wants to make sure the Exchange Visitor Program is conducted in a way consistent with its true intent – as an educational and cultural exchange that can serve as an important diplomatic tool.
A recent paper issued by the Economic Policy Institute concluded that U.S. employers have several financial incentives to hire foreign workers over U.S. workers. “The J visa has no prevailing wage requirement, which enables employers to pay J visa holders wages that are lower than those earned by U.S. workers in the same region and occupation,” the institute’s paper said. (A new Summer Work Travel program started in July required that foreign workers be paid the same as domestic U.S. workers.)
Employers are also exempt from paying Social Security, Medicare, federal and state unemployment taxes on J-1 workers, according to the paper. Workers with J-1 visas must also pay their own health-care costs.
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