Amy Roberts: If we don’t figure housing out, J-1 visas will become J-none
This weekend I woke early to take advantage of my first powder day of the season. Before the resort opened, I met a friend for coffee in the lodge. As we sipped away our sleepiness, I noticed dozens of resort workers running about — wiping tables, salting the sidewalks, whacking the lift chairs with brooms to rid them of the overnight snow. No doubt there were hundreds more I did not see out preparing the mountain for guests, in some form or another.
Our thigh-burning morning was followed by a belly-expanding lunch, which was followed by a series of après ski toasts at ski-in/ski-out hotel. The meal and the drinks were delivered to us by a gentleman wearing a nametag stating he was from Peru. Nametags noting a foreign country as home are more common than not during a Park City winter; they’re noticeable at the top and bottom of each lift, proudly donned by those preparing our food, and pinned to the lapel of those cleaning up our messes.
All in all, my day of caffeinating, skiing, lunching, and drinking on the mountain probably consumed around five hours, and in that time, I would guess it took at least 30 J-1 visa holders to make it all happen. Given their cheery dispositions and service-with-a-smile mantra, it can be easy to forget they likely rose before the sun to start their 16-hour workday. Most of these seasonal workers have two or three jobs, all requiring some form of discomfort — freezing temperatures, heavy lifting, long days and sometimes entitled customers. If they’re lucky, they’ll get a few hours of sleep before doing it all over again. But where that sleep happens is of increasing rarity and concern.
Recently, a Park City Council member informed other officials of a group of J-1 workers who had been taken advantage of by a landlord. There were 14 workers sharing three bedrooms, and a couple who rented a “private room” ended up getting a utility closet with no heat. Sadly, this story isn’t unique. There are several studio-sized condos holding up to 10 seasonal workers. Not long ago, the owners of the former Colby School were caught housing more than 50 seasonal workers, dormitory style, in the building.
While it’s easy to say the city should do something, that employers are responsible to supply lodging, or suggest J-1 visas shouldn’t be granted until housing is secured (all are common cries each time the exploitation of seasonal workers makes headlines), none of those solutions are that simple.
For starters, the J-1 visa program is sponsored by the State Department, which is managed by the federal government. And even when the government is not shut down, it’s pretty useless. After granting a J-1 visa, the State Department passes the torch of responsibility for the visa holders to the sponsors. In Park City, these sponsors are largely the resorts, hotels and restaurants.
While I do think the companies benefiting from this labor force need to put people before profit, with over 1,300 J-1 visa workers in Park City this season, securing housing for each one isn’t realistic. To put it in perspective, the Montage has 154 rooms. Even if you converted the spa, bowling alley, and conference space into employee housing, you’d still need a comparably sized building to house 1,300 people.
As a community, we all seem to agree seasonal workers are vital to our economy and we don’t want them driving in from nearby towns and adding to our clogged roads, yet even the slightest whisper of workforce housing rallies the NIMBYs quicker than ski bums on a powder day. We can’t demand employers offer housing in one breath and then protest and preserve every realistic patch of land considered for such a project in the next.
Then there’s the often-stated claim, “City Hall should do something!” But what is “something,” exactly? The only suggestions typically offered are a mix of unrealistic and unwise. “No visas without housing secured first” doesn’t work considering a municipal government has no authority over the federal government. That’s like expecting City Council members to fast track your passport application because you had the photo taken at the local post office. It’s pretty unlikely a small-town mayor would be able to influence the State Department and demand J-1 applicants submit a signed lease prior to receiving a visa. Beyond that, I’m not convinced there should be a J-1 visa real estate department at City Hall.
It’s easy to point fingers, shift blame, and pass the accountability hot potato, but ultimately, we all benefit from seasonal workers and it is on all of us to ensure they have a safe place to lay their heads, before they devote 3/4 of their day to serving us.
Amy Roberts is a freelance writer, longtime Park City resident and the proud owner of two rescued Dalmatians, Stanley and Willis. Follow her on Twitter @amycroberts.
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