Exchange or exploitation? Ski towns turn to foreign students

The J-1 program is the main source of migrant labor for the ski industry.


 

This story is a part of the ongoing Back 40 series, where HCN reporters look at national trends and their impacts close to home.

On a sunny mid-March day, Carolina Zayas of Argentina and Vittorio Lenci of Peru sit around a fire pit in Telluride’s Mountain Village. Both are J-1 visa holders spending their summer break working at the destination ski resort. Zayas and Lenci are gregarious and speak excellent English, attributes that have helped them land some of the best jobs available to foreign workers: serving at a restaurant within a snowball’s throw of ski runs. 

Despite a slow start to the season brought on by record low snowfall, Zayas and Lenci have had the postcard version of the J-1 worker experience. They’ve worked jobs they like, been paid well, and lived in convenient and affordable housing in the picturesque San Juan Mountains. On days off they’ve ventured out to national parks and attended an NBA game. But some question if the program they’ve been working in is always so rosy and if it still serves the purpose of cultural exchange.

The J-1 program, which is the main source of migrant labor for the ski industry, has come under fire across the political spectrum from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to President Donald Trump. Critics say the program has morphed from a cultural exchange program into a source of cheap labor with little oversight. Proponents of the program tout its role as a conduit of American culture and an integral source of labor in areas where seasonal jobs can be hard to fill.

  • Vittorio Lenci, front, and Carolina Zayas, background, work in a restaurant for the ski season under J1 visas.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • J1 visa holders can work a variety of jobs, and those that have better English-speaking skills can find jobs at restaurants like Tomboy Tavern, rather than working the lift lines.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • Since Vittorio Lenci and Carolina Zayas work for TelSki, they get benefits such as free ski lessons at the Telluride ski resort.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • Some sponsors for J1 visas provide subsidized housing. Those that work for TelSki can live in dormitory-style housing at Big Billy's.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News

The U.S. State Department administers the J-1 work travel program, which is intended to promote cultural exchange for university students on their summer break. But student workers often find themselves in low-wage, back-of-house jobs in kitchens and housekeeping that don’t really equate to positive cultural experiences, says Catherine Bowman, a University of Boulder doctorate student who interviewed 30 J-1 summer work travel students between 2015 and 2017 for her thesis on the program.

“As a couple students told me, you don’t get much contact with American culture when you spend all day with your vacuum,” Bowman says. Most of the J-1 workers she interviewed felt they were given the least desirable jobs and shifts, and in many cases felt they didn’t have the ability to change shifts or speak up about mistreatment.

The State Department lacks the oversight ability to make sure J-1 workers are protected, says Cathleen Caron, the founder and executive director of the migrant worker rights group Justice in Motion. She says the H2-B program has better oversight because it is run by the Labor Department and has stronger protections for workers like guaranteed hours and set contracts. Caron says the J-1 program has gone from being focused on cultural exchange to a source of cheap labor. “A cultural exchange program shouldn’t be the type of visa used to address a labor shortage,” she said.

The J-1 visa is attractive to employers because it doesn’t have the same limits and requirements as the H2-B visa. The H2-B visa has tighter caps and requires businesses to advertise jobs to U.S. workers first or prove there isn’t a U.S. worker to fill the role. Employers of J-1 visa holders also don’t have to pay Social Security, Medicare, or federal and state unemployment taxes. Still, ski industry representatives say any savings from hiring J-1 workers are offset by recruitment and administration costs.

Migrant labor plays an important role in resort towns, where unemployment rates are generally low. Colorado ski communities all had unemployment rates below 4 percent this year. In these communities employers look to the J-1 program which accounts for about 4 to 5 percent of the ski industry workforce. Dave Byrd of the National Ski Areas Association says significant decreases to the J-1 visa program “would dramatically impact ski businesses and be catastrophic to seasonal businesses in rural communities.” He says both H2-B and J-1 visas are critical for filling jobs in rural communities with low unemployment rates.

The J-1 program was spared this winter, but is still under review by the Trump administration. With a future of uncertain snowpacks and immigration policies, it’s hard to predict what role migrants will play in the labor force of ski towns. If the administration leaves the program intact, the foreign workforce could become even more attractive to employers because J-1 students, who often pay over $2,000 just to start working, find it harder to leave jobs during a bad snow year than American workers.

Congress stepped in on behalf of the J-1 program in the recent omnibus spending bill, adopting language that would make it more difficult for Trump to get rid of the visa. Still, the administration has the authority to reduce the amount of J-1 visas after congressional review. Shrinking the program would squeeze employers who would either have to entice more Americans into jobs or turn to the more competitive and heavily regulated H2-B program for foreign labor.

Lenci hopes the program stays intact so he can spend what would be his fourth season working in Telluride next winter. “I talked to a 70 or so year old man the other day who said this was the worst snow in like the past 40 years,” Lenci said. “Everyone expects next year to be much better. This program is good for the people coming and employers. People who have the opportunity to come take this job seriously.”

Note: Due to an editing error, this article originally stated that the H2-B didn’t require employers to first advertise to American workers.

Carl Segerstrom is an editorial intern at High Country News.