Valet’s firing shows perils of worker visas
December 28, 2006
Aspen, Co ColoradoASPEN An Israeli man and The Little Nell hotel learned the hard way that sometimes it’s risky to use a visa program that ties a foreign worker to a specific job.A labor dispute left 22-year-old Ido Revel with no choice but to head back to Jerusalem last month, and it left the five-star hotel scrambling to fill a position in a tight labor market.Revel had his heart set on spending a winter in Aspen, skiing as much as possible and earning money before starting university. After putting in his mandatory service in the Israeli army, Revel came to the U.S. with a friend last summer and worked at a camp in upstate New York. While they were there, an acquaintance urged them to try to find winter jobs in Aspen for a special experience.Revel said he contacted the hotel and learned about the H-2B visa program designed for temporary or seasonal workers. In that program, an employer documents with the U.S. Department of Labor that it cannot fill positions with domestic workers. It petitions to use foreign nationals for temporary help.If the government approves the petition, the employer gives it to prospective workers from overseas. They take it to the U.S. consulate in their country and acquire an H-2B visa, which allows them to stay in the U.S. for one year, with possible extensions.The visa is granted on the condition that the worker stays in the position for which he was hired. If he leaves that job, he is supposed to leave the country.Revel said he was informed by the Little Nell’s human resources department in September that an H-2B visa was a possibility. He qualified and arrived in Aspen in late November along with a friend. They were able to rent employee housing in Snowmass Village that belonged to the Aspen Skiing Co., which owns The Little Nell.Revel reported for duty Dec. 5 and spent the first several days shadowing veteran valets, learning the tricks of the trade. He claimed he received nothing but positive feedback from his supervisor.
Somehow, something went awry. In his second week at work, Revel got his schedule but didn’t notice a mandatory evening meeting. He claimed his supervisor personally told all valets except for Revel and his friend, a fellow Israeli who came to Aspen with him. His claim couldn’t be verified. Both men missed the employee meeting.Revel wasn’t scheduled to work the next day, but learned when he showed up at an employee party hosted by the Nell that night that he was suspended. He was told by his supervisor and the hotel’s human resources director to report to the personnel office Friday morning to discuss his situation. He was asked to leave the party since he was serving a suspension.Revel said he was disappointed in himself for missing the meeting and felt “humiliated.””I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wanted to cry out,” he said.He reported to the human resources director on the following Friday, expecting to be placed on probation for missing the meeting. Instead he was dismissed.”In my wildest dreams I didn’t think I’d get fired,” he said.Revel was ordered to vacate his housing within 72 hours. He had paid rent for the month of December, but a pro-rated amount was returned along with his deposit.
Revel appealed his firing to the hotel’s acting general manager but the decision was upheld. The Nell followed its legal obligations by alerting U.S. authorities that Revel had been terminated from his job, so his H-2B visa wouldn’t be valid. He had 10 days to leave the country.Revel again appealed the decision, this time to Jim Laing, vice president of human resources for the Skico. Laing oversees the Little Nell’s human resources department.He looked into the issue and got back to Revel a few days later. “We had a very long discussion about his concerns,” said Laing.Company policy and legal obligations prevent the company from discussing personnel issues, so Laing couldn’t get into specifics about the Revel case. “I would love to go into more detail but I can’t,” he said.Laing spoke in general terms about the Little Nell’s expectations. The hotel has earned the highest ratings possible in the hotel business, he noted. “The whole experience is about how guests are treated,” he said.It is essential that employees uphold the hotel’s reputation for top-notch customer service, according to Laing. All newly hired workers serve a probation period to make sure they fit the bill.”We hire for attitude. We can train for aptitude,” said Laing. “We don’t hire just anybody.”Laing said he did a thorough review of Revel’s case, which included evaluations from several employees at the hotel. Revel wasn’t let go due to one person’s opinion or one event, according to Laing.
Switching Revel to a different position, such as a snowmaker on Aspen Mountain or lift operator at Tiehack, wasn’t an option. When a person is hired through the H-2B visa program, he is hired for a specific position. If employment doesn’t pan out, both the employer and employee pay the consequences, Laing said. That’s what happened in this case.Revel flew back to Jerusalem on Christmas Day. He maintained he was treated unfairly.”I was feeling bad about it because nobody should be treated like this,” he said.Laing said the Skico and Little Nell take dismissals seriously since it is difficult to fill all positions. That particular H-2B visa can no longer be utilized, he said, because there isn’t enough time to go through the bureaucracy and fill the Nell’s valet position again before the end of the ski season.Nevertheless, he said, the Skico and its divisions would rather deal with employee shortages than keep someone on staff who doesn’t meet expectations.The Skico used H-2B visas to fill 130 positions this winter, the same as the prior ski season. Despite the issue with Revel, Laing regards the case as a rare exception to a program that works well.”I can’t think of another situation where it didn’t work out,” he said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com