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US resorts rely on foreign short-term workers

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US resort towns like Aspen, Colorado and Key West, Fla., have become reliant on hundreds of foreign workers who come to the US legally on short-term work visas. They take jobs scanning lift tickets and staffing checkout lines.

They are often college students who come into town for a little work, and maybe a little fun, for a season. But these workers are often from the Southern Hemisphere - Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa - whose summer breaks coincide with Colorado's ski season.

For summer resorts, it's more likely workers from the Czech Republic or Romania serving up coffee or cleaning sheets.

"If you got rid of the foreign workforce in Aspen, there wouldn't be anybody working there," said Norman, Okla., immigration attorney Jon Velie, who helps a number of clients obtain visas to work in Aspen. "There's a handful of Americans, just not enough to fulfill the need."

Aspen Skiing Co. hired nearly 350 foreign workers last season - that's about one of every 10 SkiCo employees - who came in on H-2B short-term worker visas and J-1 foreign exchange visas.

"We've tried to (fill those jobs locally)," said Jim Laing, SkiCo's vice president for human resources. "We've not been able to. And we've been able to substantiate that with the U.S. government. ... We have to substantiate the need. We actually run ads domestically, with all the applications being sent to the Department of Labor to show that we don't have enough applicants to supply the demand that's out there."

Other ski areas across the state hire hundreds more. Each year, the federal government hands out 66,000 H-2B visas. Employers gobbled up those visas so quickly, last year the government exempted workers from the cap who had held the visa for any time during the previous three years.

Last year, the State Department also issued 106,000 J-1 visas for international students to work and travel.

"People sometimes start comparing guest workers that come on H-2 and legal visas with illegal workers, which is not the right thing to do," said P.K. Kannan, director of the Center for Excellence in Service at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Visa workers pay taxes, receive health care and get other benefits. Illegal workers may not.

Kannan likens the use of these foreign workers to out-sourcing, and worries that without them, the economy would suffer. Resorts would have to raise wages so much to attract domestic workers, prices could soar, he said, and there still may not be enough workers.

Colorado's unemployment rate dropped four tenths of one percentage point to 4.3 percent in February, the lowest level since 9/11. That's lower than the national rate of 4.8 percent.

Overall, the economy benefits from these workers, Kannan said, and so do consumers, but unskilled workers on the lowest rung of the employment ladder may pay the price by seeing an influx of overseas workers willing to work for less money.

"There's always the danger that if you bring in too many workers, you could depress the wages further," he said.

That worries immigration opponents.

"They can offer whatever they damn well please, knowing that people from abroad will take those jobs because either, A, it's more than they can get at home, or B, they're coming here just for a lark for the season. So the company gets to determine what the prevailing wage is," said Mike McGarry, acting director of the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform. His group wants to cap legal immigration at 200,000 a year.

"It's the most fundamental law of economics - supply and demand," he said. "You can keep down the wages forever."

Employers must prove to the federal government that they're paying the prevailing wages for the job, but that can be problematic. Federal job statistics can cover a vast region, said Travis Bennett, a Summit County vocational counselor, and wages for, say, a housekeeper, may be much lower in Alamosa than in Vail.

"I've actually had resort human resources people tell me they couldn't survive without (visa workers) because they couldn't afford it," he said. "The problem is, they aren't supposed to bring these people in at a sub-standard wage."

Laing insists SkiCo workers aren't paid any less because of the visa program. If wages haven't gone up much in the past several years - lift operators make just less than $10 an hour - their benefits have increased through bonus packages and affordable housing. At full build-out SkiCo has about 325 beds for workers.

"We'd love to be able to satisfy our demand domestically," Laing said. "When the international employees come over, it's not about the job as much as the experience. It's really a life experience.

"We've got a fairly significant population in our valley. We believe based on our numbers that we ought to be able to satisfy our employment demand locally, but the type of jobs we offer aren't all that glamorous or career-oriented. But when you're an Australian or Argentina, the prospect of going to Aspen is pretty glamorous."