Ski resorts and others worry the Trump administration may cut visa workers program

The Trump administration is considering overhauling a program that allows foreign college students to work temporarily in the United States, sparking panic among operators of ski resorts and concessions at state and national parks who rely heavily on such seasonal help.

In a conference call Wednesday, ski resort operators and other tourism industry officials urged representatives of Trump’s domestic policy staff to keep intact the so-called J-1 visa program.

Tourism executives who participated in the call said Trump officials were polite and inquisitive, but did not indicate how they planned to change the program, if at all.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment on the program but the State Department issued a statement saying: “We continue to implement J-1 visa programs at the same level we have for the past few years.”

The J-1 visa program allows up to 300,000 foreign visitors, primarily college students, to visit the United States temporarily each year. The program includes 13 categories, such as summer workers, au pairs and research scholars. Eighty-five percent of the visitors are 30 or younger.

Ski resorts and concessions operators at national and state parks hire the students to work in restaurants, housekeeping and ski schools during peak tourism seasons. Foreign college students often have school breaks when U.S. students are back in class.

But the J-1 visa program, along with other immigration rules, are under review as part of Trump’s executive order in April dubbed “Buy American and Hire American,” which is intended to ensure that the interests of American workers are protected.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump administration officials are considering several options, including eliminating the work categories of the program and imposing new requirements on participants. Another option is to require employers to show that they can’t find Americans for these jobs, the newspaper reported, citing anonymous sources.

Earlier this month, President Trump voiced support for overhauling the nation’s legal immigration programs to prioritize merit and skill over family ties.

Critics of the president have pointed out the Trump Organization has asked for dozens of H-2B visas for temporary foreign workers at two of Trump's private clubs in Florida, including his Mar-a-Lago resort.

Ski operators defend the J-1 visa program, saying they can’t find enough American workers to fill the temporary jobs that are taken by the foreign students, many of whom visit the United States during a school break from December to mid-March — the height of the ski season in the United States.

About 7,000 J-1 visa workers are employed in the nation’s ski resorts. A representative for Vail Resorts, one of the nation’s largest ski resort operators, participated in the call with Trump officials.

“We’ve always been interested in hiring local college students, but they don’t want the jobs,” said Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs at the National Ski Areas Assn., a trade group for 460 ski resorts across the country. “They want year-round opportunities.”

At Squaw Valley Ski Resort near Lake Tahoe, J-1 visa workers represent 12% to 15% of the staff, working at the dining halls and restaurants and teaching children how to ski, said Andrew Wirth, chief executive of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, the parent company of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows ski resorts.

He said ending the program would be an economic blow to the resort.

“It would be worse than the drought,” he said, referring to the multi-year dry spell that severely cut ski visits throughout California.

Mammoth Mountain, the most popular ski resort in California, also relies on J-1 visa workers, but a representative for the resort did not provide details on its program.

“We find these employees to be valuable resources and add to the cultural diversity at our ski resorts,” Mammoth Mountain spokeswoman Lauren Burke said.

Another 5,000 J-1 visa workers are employed by national park concessions, according to tourism officials.

Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which operates lodging, restaurants and other concessions at Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Zion and other national parks, relies on the J-1 visa program for nearly 25% of its temporary workforce.

A cut to the program could force the company to reduce its operating schedules for concessions at some parks, said Shannon Dierenbach, Xanterra’s human resources vice president.

“The local economy really depends on our employees and our guests,” she said. “There is a ripple effect on how this impacts the local economy.”

The Disneyland Resort in Anaheim has employed a handful of temporary workers through the J-1 visa program in the past, but does not currently have any on the payroll.

Critics of the program, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), say for-profit companies are taking advantage of the program to get cheap labor instead of spending money to recruit U.S.-based workers.

Ski resorts and concession operators don’t pay Social Security and Medicare taxes or unemployment insurance for J-1 visa workers, but are required to pay the same salaries they would pay U.S. workers.

Carl H. Winston, director of the School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at San Diego State University, said some companies that hire J-1 visa workers must invest in housing and meal programs to employ the foreign students.

“It’s a major hassle for these employers,” he said. “Of course they would hire local kids if they could.”

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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