H-2B visa program on hold
A decision handed down recently to Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (MMSA) from the U.S. Department of Labor promises to greatly alter the face of the Mountain this winter. MMSA’s H-2B Foreign Labor Certification, which allows the Mountain to employ non-student international workers, has been denied after a long and complex application process that left international H-2B visa applicants waiting late into the year to discover whether or not they could be employed stateside.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said MMSA Senior Vice President Pam Murphy of the decision. “We’ve thrown every resource we have at this. Some employees with more than 15 years of tenure can’t come work this winter because of the certification denial.”
According to the Department of Labor, “the H-2B non-immigrant program permits employers to hire foreign workers to come temporarily to the U.S. and perform temporary nonagricultural services or labor on a one-time, seasonal, peakload or intermittent basis.” But the program has become increasingly controversial in the U.S. given the economic difficulties faced by domestic workers, and, said Murphy, as a result “the government is coming out with laws that make it harder to get H-2Bs granted.”
Murphy explained the complexity of the complete H-2B process: first the employer must apply for H-2B Foreign Labor Certification approval. If the certification is approved, the employer may make specific job offers—in this case ski and snowboard instruction, as well as coaching—to international employees. Only then can the employee apply for an H-2B visa, which, if approved, allows them to work in the U.S. for a period of time specified by their employer.
What this means is that no international H-2B visa applications have been denied. Instead, the overall program which would facilitate the use of H-2B visas has been put on hold for the year.
Last year MMSA was granted late approval of its H-2B certification, and this year Murphy said the Mountain was aware it might not gain any approval. “We let employees from last year know that this H-2B program was getting more difficult,” she said. “At least there was some heads-up, whether or not people believed it.” However, to many international employees, even those who were aware the H-2B certification process was getting trickier, the decision came as a shock.
Said one 3-season employee, “It’s always been said that the visas are not guaranteed, and we have job offers if the government grants the [certification]. It has been getting harder and less certain each year, but I thought we would be good this year as my friend from Squaw just got a visa approved. Same state, same job, same rules, right? How come [Squaw] got approval and Mammoth didn’t?”
As it turns out, the H-2B approval process has turned into something of a crapshoot. Squaw was granted approval this year, but, as one inside source speculated, the resort was simply lucky in its timing. “The Department of Labor will review and process all H-2B applications on a first in, first out basis,” states the H-2B certification website. So while Squaw may have been lucky in filing all their paperwork sooner than most, other resorts in the same area, like Kirkwood and Sierra at Tahoe, are still struggling to get their H-2B certifications approved for this season.
In fact, many ski resorts are forgoing the H-2B program altogether because of the increasing cost and complexity of the application process. “Many resorts stopped their efforts in the middle of the summer when it became clear it was going to be a costly and painful process,” said Murphy. Aspen hasn’t applied for the H-2B for several years now, while Deer Valley and Vail stopped applying this year.
One might argue that, given the uncertainty, it might have been wiser for MMSA to follow the example of other resorts and end its H-2B program altogether rather than keep international applicants waiting so late into the year to learn their employment options. But, said Murphy, the Mountain chose not to do this because “we’re doggedly determined not to give up on our people. We really believe in the program and believe in the benefit of what employees have brought not only to the Mountain, but also to the community.”
That’s why MMSA is currently re-applying for H-2B certification in the hopes that the second time will be the charm. The Mountain expects to hear back from the Department of Labor by December at the earliest, and February at the latest. Though this has given many international applicants renewed hope, it also puts them in a difficult position. If they wait much longer, they may not be able to find any seasonal winter work abroad—the visa deadline for Canada has already passed—not to mention airfare gets more and more expensive into December. But for many, Mammoth is home, and the wait and risk are worth it.
“Now I wait again for another month,” said one international applicant, who was instructed not give his name by his bosses, “stressing every day, wondering if we will get the visa. Money factors in now because I’m supposed to start work in Mammoth next week. Now it’s another month without income, and then if we get our visa, spending a fortune on a flight in December. Mind you, spending a fortune on a flight doesn’t really matter as long as I get there.”
Until MMSA resolves whether or not it can count on international employees this winter, the Mountain has some strategizing to do. H-2B certification requires that the applying employer prove that there are not enough U.S. workers to fill the specified positions, and that therefore the employment of foreign workers will not adversely affect U.S. workers. MMSA has proven year after year that there are not enough workers to fill the ski school in particular, and now, without international employees, the Mountain will have even more vacant positions than usual.
Said Murphy, “While I certainly understand that the government thinks it’s working in the best interest of U.S. employees, I think it’s been proven that there aren’t many people making careers out of ski instructing.” MMSA already has difficulty attracting ski instructors, particularly instructors with Level 2 and 3 PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors of America) certification, and has typically relied on returning international employees to fill those vacancies. “We now have to find a way to fill Level 2 and 3 ski instructors, which we’ve never fully filled,” Murphy said.
Worst case scenario, MMSA will have to work with a greatly reduced staff, and encourage currently employed domestic ski instructors to grow in their PSIA certification, and other employees, like lifties, to come back as instructors.
Should the H-2B certification be denied a second time, the Mountain will be down 45 returning international employees, 33 of whom were in the ski school. This number is a reduction already from 200 when the H-2B program first started, and the Mountain employed international H-2B visa applicants as housekeepers, lifties, and groomers in addition to instructors and coaches. Over the years, MMSA narrowed those job openings down to what Murphy called “our true need,” which is instructors.
45 may not be 200, but this number represents not only a meaningful loss for the Mountain, but also, given the close-knit nature of the Mammoth community, for the town as well. Said one international applicant, “I don’t think it’s just the thought of losing my job. It’s losing the friends. Or not losing them, but to never be in the same place again.”
The applicant continued, “We are all aware of the economic crisis over there and I understand, but how come they let other people into the country and not us? It seems like the government is picking on this industry. I have mates who work all over the States and their visas have been denied as well. Some own houses in Utah and now they can’t get back over there, unless they go and work under the table, which is way too dodgy. It’s such a joke. I have been doing this for 12 years, back to back winters. This is all I know. I have no idea what I will do if we get denied again. Everyone says make a plan B, but what do you do when all you have is skiing?”