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Ski resorts nervous as no decision is made yet on international visas

Adam Jensen
Australian Rebecca Sheedy teaches a youngster to ski at Sierra at Tahoe during the Winter of 2006. Sheedy was in America on a H-2B visa. Without action by U.S. lawmakers, H-2B visas could be a lot harder to come by this winter. (Photo provided by Sierra-at-Tahoe)
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Without help from federal lawmakers to extend a previous exemption for international seasonal workers using H-2B visas, two of the South Shore’s three ski resorts may be without some familiar faces this year.

Through the passage of the Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act of 2007, ski industry officials expected returning international employees using the visas to be exempt from the national annual quota of 66,000.

The act has yet to be approved by either house of Congress.

International employees of the ski industry typically come to the U.S. to work by using either J1 or H-2B visas.

J1 visas require workers to return as a full-time student to a university following employment.

H-2B visas are generally used by employees who return year after year.

“They are coaches, snow makers, ski instructors — professionals with skills that we need,” said Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association.

In the past, employees approved for H-2B visas within the previous three years have been exempt from a the annual cap.

This exemption lapsed on Sept. 30, 2007, and the 33,000 H-2B visas allowed during the first half of the 2008 fiscal year was reached the next day, according to a press release from Diamond Peak Ski Resort in Incline Village.

Further H-2B visa applications will be rejected until the act passes, potentially preventing hundreds of international employees from working at California ski resorts, Roberts said.

A void in skilled positions could likely be filled through a combination of U.S. job-hunters and international employees utilizing J1 visas, but skilled employees who already have a relationship with South Shore resorts are desirable, according to Allon Cohne, director of marketing for Kirkwood Mountain Resort.

“It’s important for us to make sure we provide the best professionals in those areas. We build these relationships over time,” Cohne said on Monday. “These are people who know Kirkwood and are familiar with our guests. Either way the resorts are going to be prepared for the season.”

Thirty-one Kirkwood employees — about 10 percent of the resort’s skilled workforce — could be prevented from returning to the resort if the act is not approved, Cohne said.

All 65 of the employees requesting H-2B visas at Sierra-at-Tahoe for the upcoming season have been approved, according to spokeswoman Kirstin Cattell. The resort’s human resources department submitted applications for the returning employees “as early as they possibly could,” (four months before the employees’ start date), Cattell said.

Out of 50 employees expecting to use H-2B visas at Heavenly this year, 15 have been approved, according to Russ Pecoraro, spokesman for the resort.

Heavenly is prepared to speed up the process for the remaining 35 upon the act’s passage.

“We’re pretty confident,” Pecoraro said. “We don’t see it impacting business too drastically.”

Other resorts are not as optimistic.

“Even if Congress adopts a retroactive exemption for returning H-2B workers and the cap is opened back up, applications submitted after September 27, 2007 are not likely to be processed in time for the holidays,” according to the press release from Diamond Peak. “If this cap does not open back up then it is possible that some recreation and tourism based businesses will be severely impacted or even forced to shut down due to lack of workers.”

Ski industry officials have been ramping up lobbying efforts regarding the act and are hopeful it will be pass in time for returning international employees to be on the slopes in time for the holiday rush.

“You’re dealing with the federal government, so there are no sure things. There are no slam dunks,” Roberts said. “Fortunately, California and Nevada have a very powerful contingent. We are going to lobby for all our might.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, who owns a cabin near Sugar Bowl, and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., are two of the lawmakers the industry association is looking to for help in passing the act as quickly as possible, Roberts said.

Reid and Pelosi were not immediately available for comment on Monday.


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