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Skico planning to import more help from overseas

The Aspen Skiing Co. hopes to import 60 more foreign workers than it employed last season through a special visa program.

The company applied to the U.S. Department of Labor for permission to boost its number of foreign workers from 105 last season to 170 this year, according to Jim Laing, Skico vice president of human resources.

“I would love to hire everyone locally or from the valley. That’s just not possible,” said Laing.

As Aspen’s labor shortage has intensified over the past five years, so has the Skico’s reliance on a federal government program that allows residents of other countries to work through visas obtained by employers. That four-year-old program, called H2B, is used extensively by the ski industry.

The Skico obtained 30 visas for the 1997-98 season. The number increased to 75 the next season and 105 last season, according to Laing.

“It’s been a critical piece of our staffing,” he said.

Labor department officials in Washington, D.C., and Denver couldn’t be reached for comment on the ski industry’s use of the program. The Gunnison Country Times reported recently that Club Med in Crested Butte applied for 100 foreign workers for its new hotel through the H2B program because of the tight labor market there. Instructors, students hired separately The Skico’s targeted foreign employment figure doesn’t include ski instructors or foreign students with temporary visas.

Instructors are considered skilled laborers who are employed through a different program. Laing said he was uncertain how many instructors from other countries were employed by the Skico last season. Ski school officials were unavailable for comment.

Local employers also experience some temporary labor relief when students from Australia and New Zealand come to town from mid-December into March, while they are on their spring break. Laing said those employees often help out at mountain restaurants.

The students, however, can pack up and quit their jobs whenever they want, unlike foreign workers employed through the H2B program. Those employees must stay with the employers that “sponsored” their visas. If they quit their jobs, they are supposed to leave the country. `Need is growing’ Laing said the Skico and other employers cannot simply pick a number of employees they want from thin air for the H2B program. It must be substantiated with proof of need.

The Labor department requires proof that positions couldn’t be filled the previous ski season, said Laing. The Skico’s documentation alleged that 75 to 100 positions out of 3,500 were empty at any given time last season.

“The need is clearly there,” said Laing. “The need is more than it’s ever been.”

To guard against exploitation of foreign workers for lower wages, the Skico must pay the same wage for positions filled through the H2B program, said Laing. To guard against companies trying to “manage the payroll,” the labor department requires documentation that positions were advertised domestically at a specific wage, Laing said.

The Skico won’t know until October whether its request for 170 foreign workers was approved, said Laing. Foreign residents have already been recruited for all openings. About 40 are returning from last season, said Laing, while scores of others learned of the openings and visa program through the Skico’s Web site.

Many of the foreign applicants were offered Skico housing as an extra incentive to come overseas. Laing said there was little trouble finding 170 qualified applicants from foreign lands.

“Right now the supply exceeds the demand, fortunately,” he said.

But not all applicants may pass the feds’ muster.

In addition to the labor department’s supervision of the H2B program, applicants face scrutiny by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the U.S. consulates in their home countries, according to Laing. Those agencies are apparently trying to weed out candidates they suspect may want to stay in the states longer than their visas allow, he said.


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