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Come trade a hard hat for a ski helmet


Anticipated changes to the H-2b visa program for international workers have made the hiring process more difficult and have prompted at least two of Park City’s largest employers to end their participation in the program.

"International worker" is the moniker used to describe foreign workers who come to Park City for the ski season under an H-2b visa or a J-1 visa.

The former are ordered by the employer and are used to hire people with special skills like snow making, snow grooming or ski instructing. The latter is obtained by the employee, often in Brazil, and in previous years they have come without job offers or to work regular resort jobs.

Last year, all three resorts in town reported requesting fewer H-2b visas and seeing fewer J-1 applicants because of the recession. Prior to the economic downturn, the resorts struggled to fill all openings with domestic workers. That is no longer true.

But the specialized workers were still needed. These are often ski-loving professionals who hop between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres working in perpetual winter.

Chris Lampe, director of human resources for Park City Mountain Resort, said the anticipated changes to the program will make it difficult for the resort to be fair in its hiring practices.

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What concerns him most is a change in the approval timeline. There is a quota on the number of visa-holders allowed in the U.S. each year. Employers, like resorts, must request a specific number and justify that number to U.S. government agencies.

He is not expecting approval of a request until just days before the employee would need to get on an airplane to start work at the beginning of the season. That means he would be hiring people he could not guarantee a visa to. It isn’t fair to the employee and is not practical for the resort, he explained.

"If passed, it becomes logistically impossible to continue in a way that would benefit us and them," he said. "We wouldn’t want to tell 20 to 60 people they didn’t have a job after all we didn’t feel good about it."

Deer Valley Resort’s director of human resources, Kim Mayhew, said the 2011-2012 season will be the first time in 15 years the resort has not hired through the H-2b visa program.

That leaves the resorts scrambling to replace these specialized workers with only five months left before the start of the season.

"Our biggest challenge will be finding fully-certified, experienced ski instructors to replace the professional instructors that had been coming to the resort for many years," Mayhew said.

Lampe said PCMR will likely hire a few more J-1 visa holders as a result, but will more likely be reaching out to similar professions to attract people into the industry.

Winter is a notoriously bad time of year for people in construction to find work. Lampe is hoping to attract some of them with experience operating large, complicated machinery.

International workers made up less than 10 percent of PCMR’s total workforce, Lampe said. Replacing those people will be challenging, but not impossible, he said.

But many of these employees have worked at the resort for several years. They know the mountain, know the clientele and understand the corporate culture. That cannot be quickly replaced, he said.

Deer Valley’s international workers are part of the corporate family, Mayhew said.

"They are well-trained and have been very dedicated to our philosophies on guest service. They will be missed," she said.

Besides the employers, the next agency most impacted by fewer international workers is the Christian Center of Park City. Former director Tim Dahlin designed much of the center’s winter operations around serving the needs of young workers struggling to find housing and buy food and furniture before their first paychecks arrived. Before leaving, he said the new director, Rob Harter, was partly chosen for his experience in working with youth.

But Harter said the center’s focus in winter has had to change anyway, because of the recession.

Many people come to Park City during ski season to work who struggle with housing, food, clothing and other needs. And strained family budgets become acute during the holiday season in every town, he added.

"We have a food pantry that serves 24,000 people. International students were only one-third of that use," he said. "We have found such an uptick in general for these basic food, clothing and furniture needs. We’re even seeing people from Salt Lake City and Heber at the pantry and for our unique items in the thrift store. The word is out and people come from a long way."

It’s even possible the center’s international outreach will become focused on Burmese refugees.

Agencies are looking to locate people from Myanmar in Heber and have reached out to local charities seeking help. Some hotels already employ refugees, and if the trend catches on, winter employment needs may be filled with a different kind of international worker, Harter said.