Seasonal, international workers adapt to life at Tahoe with mixed experiences
March 9, 2006
Lake Tahoe may be a long way from Australia, but Nick Hannah depicts the California lifestyle with the enthusiasm of a local. The young man from down under is riding the endless wave of snowboarding and skateboarding.
A week ago, his life was all about the snow at play and at work in the food and beverage department of Heavenly Mountain Resort. Now with the sun peeking out more often, he escapes the tight quarters of his room at Heavenly Valley Apartments to ride his skateboard down Harrison Avenue. Because it’s his day off Wednesday, he tied a climbing rope to his friend’s burly dog and rode behind to emulate the gravity of the slopes.
Hannah is here for the season, doing the “snowboarding and partying” scene.
“This is a cool place to hang out,” he said Wednesday, while soaking up the rays.
He shares a room with three other people at the Keller Avenue apartment complex where people come and go but the rents of the 2- and 3-bedroom apartments are cheap by any standard of South Shore living – $154 every two weeks. The rooms are basic with no frills.
“You lose your privacy, but the cost is reasonable,” Heavenly housing coordinator Jim Kearns said.
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In the beginning of the season, Heavenly rents half the units to locals. Heavenly Valley accommodates 90 people. By mid-season, the place is nearly full of international workers. They’re starting to leave now, with the winter season coming soon to a close.
Between finding enough housing and completing paperwork, Tahoe ski resorts seem to have their own work cut out for them each year in attracting qualified, dynamic employees like Hannah to staff the slopes.
The ski season started with the resorts running classified recruitment advertisements earlier than usual to meet federal VISA guidelines. The federal government requires companies make every concerted effort to hire domestic workers – a policy spun out of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The international workers who spend the season at the lake get varying experiences out of it depending on their expectation level.
Samuel, Ed and Edmund are clustered around a motel hot plate heating a simmering pot of banku, a traditional West African corn meal dinner.
They are nearly 8,000 miles from home, preparing to eat after a full day of loading people onto lifts at Boreal and Soda Springs ski resorts west of Truckee. In their cramped, one-bedroom space at Truckee’s Alpine Country Lodge, the propped up hot plate in their living room serves as a kitchen.
But tonight, as the pot bubbles, they smile.
They are leaving Truckee. Leaving the rock-bottom wages and the dismal living conditions; leaving the long hitchhiking sessions in freezing temperatures every morning.
“Even if I was paid $20 an hour, I wouldn’t come here again,” says Samuel in the British-inflected English of his native Ghana. “I can’t stand on the roadside and beg for a ride.”
It’s two months before the trio is supposed to leave. Instead of staying they jumped at the chance to get out of the Truckee area and return to a seasonal job in Yosemite National Park. Transportation to and from work and adequate housing await them there. They can’t wait to leave.
Samuel runs ski lifts at Soda Springs Ski Resort. Ed and Edmund are lift operators at Boreal Mountain Resort.
But their chances of even getting to their jobs atop Donner Summit depend on an outstretched arm and an extended thumb each morning. Sometimes they wait for as long as two hours in the numbing cold before someone picks them up.
After all day working in the snow, getting home can be another hour-long ordeal.
“We are ready to go back” to Yosemite, says Ed. “We cannot live here.”
Samuel, Ed and Edmund, who asked that their last names be withheld, are working in the United States on temporary work visas, or H2B visas. Like Hannah, they are three of nearly 66,000 workers who pour into the country every year to work in seasonal jobs Americans won’t take.
The Ghanaians say they each paid $7,500 in September 2004 for visas, plane tickets and agent services to work in the U.S. At the ski resorts they make $7.25 an hour, which amounts to a little more than $800 a month. Together they shell out $825 a month to share a one-bedroom motel at the decidedly no-frills Alpine Country Lodge.
After buying food and other necessities, the workers often have to dip into savings from their past, more lucrative jobs to live.
“The pay,” Ed says, “sometimes doesn’t reach.”
The three men, each in their late 30s, are some of the few international workers who remain at the lodge. Many of the others departed when they realized they couldn’t make ends meet, or tired of the workdays elongated by hours of hitchhiking to and from work.
The workers were brought to the two Donner Summit resorts by Cultural Homestay International, a nonprofit Bay Area visa organization that recruits international workers for seasonal jobs.
But after seeing the conditions the workers have had to endure, Cindy La Rue, operations manager for the visa agency, said she will probably not work with Boreal or Soda Springs again.
“I feel like I drove a lot of people out to the desert and said ‘Find your way home,'” La Rue says.
Other companies Cultural Homestay International has worked with in its 28 years in the business supply affordable housing and transportation for their workers, she says. This year the organization had the task of trying to arrange both housing and transportation.
“We have had challenges,” La Rue says, “but none on this scale.”
This season some workers have had to live in Reno, hop the bus up to Truckee every day and then hitchhike up to the Summit. The situation has kept her awake at night, La Rue says, and she has fielded a continual string of calls from the seasonal workers who contact her on her cell phone.
“(Employers) need to take into account that these are human beings,” La Rue says.
A transit problem
Like Sierra-at-Tahoe, Boreal and Soda Springs first did something about the transportation problem in the middle of this ski season. They set up a carpooling program that rewards workers who have cars if they offer rides to their fellow employees, says Kathy Chan, human resources director for Alpine Meadows, Boreal and Soda Springs. The program has helped workers, she says. Sierra has a shuttle and carpooling program.
Yet many of the resort employees can still be seen thumbing rides each morning in the harsh winter elements the Sierra Nevada can conjure up. Chan says the resorts are budgeting to get a bus for their workers next season. The company has been unable to get transportation running this year because of budget constraints and legal requirements that govern the use of buses.
“We don’t want to be a callous company,” she says. “It just doesn’t happen overnight.”
Boreal and Soda Springs did allow workers to rent rooms at the Boreal Inn before Christmas, when the workers were still trying to find housing, Chan says.
That’s about the same time every year when Truckee resident Sharon Esler’s phone starts ringing off the hook. The calls come from international workers scrambling for a place to live.
Esler, who over the last several years has arranged housing for countless international workers, says she cannot believe the resorts’ lack of involvement in housing their workers.
“I just think it is really irresponsible of the ski resorts to offer them jobs and bring them here without housing them or offering them any stipend,” says Esler, who runs a concierge, planning and vacation rental business.
In her years helping out ski workers Esler says she has seen people scrounging bread rolls from the resorts to help stave off hunger. Many stuff four to six people in a room to help cut the cost of rent.
“Some of them can’t even afford to eat,” Esler says.
Want among plenty
In Truckee and North Tahoe, homes sit vacant all around the single room crammed with Samuel, Ed and Edmund’s mattresses. Many are occupied seasonally – some only for a few weekends a year. Most are luxurious. Some are downright decadent.
But the wealth lavished around the ski mountains and resorts of the Sierra has not trickled down to the three Ghanaians or the many others like them.
They work in a multi-billion dollar industry, but the money flows elsewhere. While over the past years Tahoe ski resorts have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into upgrades, only one resort, Northstar-at-Tahoe, has plans to build more housing for its employees.
Worse, the international workers are on temporary visas, and the rules of the program are limiting.
H2B visas are tied to employers and jobs. Workers are not free to take another job if they are mistreated. They are locked into their work by visa agreements.
And it’s a one-way relationship at some resorts. If it doesn’t snow, the resorts have no obligation to give the internationals work. The workers assume all the risks with no guaranteed rewards.
But by no means are all resorts equally exploitative of the cheap overseas labor. In fact, some area resorts are stepping up to the plate with both housing and transportation.
Unlike workers at most other resorts, Sugar Bowl employees can hop a bus after work that will drop them right at their doorstep – a room that is owned and managed by the ski resort. The conditions at Donner Summit Lodge are not luxurious, but most workers have a choice of different room sizes.
Sugar Bowl workers can also live in 40 dorm-style beds at the resort or in one of the three houses the ski resort rents out to its employees.
At Northstar-at-Tahoe, employees have a pick of 60 beds near downtown Truckee. The resort has Placer County’s approval to build 96 more units near the slopes of the resort.
The plight of ski resort workers is nothing new in the area. But as North Tahoe and Truckee’s real estate markets continue to escalate, those who once were just scraping by are now hanging on by their fingernails.
“It’s been going on for years and it’s not getting any better,” says Rachelle Pellissier, executive director of the Workforce Housing Association of Truckee Tahoe.
Pellissier and other housing advocates have long urged companies to provide housing for their workers. With housing prices steadily increasing, the only way low-wage employees will have a place to live in the future is if employers, community organizations and governmental agencies get affordable housing on the ground, Pellissier says.
Others, like Esler, can think of more short-term solutions, like gauging the amount of international employees the resort will take in for the winter – and then arranging leases beforehand.
For La Rue at Cultural Homestay International, one simple step needs to be resolved first.
“Without the transportation, forget it,” she says. “The transportation has been the No. 1 problem, and it is such an easy, solvable problem.”
The issue is not reserved to the North Shore. Kirkwood Mountain Resort spokeswoman Tracy Miller recommended South Lake Tahoe find ways to explore more deed-restricted housing as it’s the closest urban area to the Alpine County ski resort.
In the meantime, Kirkwood will continue to match homeowners with workers. Some have moved into units in the Edelweiss and Thimblewood complexes.
“Having an in-house real estate division helps,” Miller said.