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Economy & Employment

Aspen Begins Winter Without J-1 Workers, And No Timeline For Their Return

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Alex Hager
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Aspen Public Radio
The Aspen T-Shirt Company is one of many businesses that will go without J-1 visa workers this year, likely leaving hundreds of seasonal positions unfilled throughout the valley.

J-1 visas, which normally bring more than 800 seasonal workers to the Roaring Fork Valley each year, are still on hold following an executive order from President Donald Trump in June. Some local businesses were holding out hope that J-1 workers could come at the beginning of the new year, as the order was originally set to expire at the end of December.

Now, uncertainty clouds the status of the exchange program, and businesses are planning for a winter without visiting workers.

“We still have a ‘help wanted’ sign in our window,” said Lisa LeMay, manager of the Aspen T-Shirt Company, which has souvenir shops in Aspen and Snowmass.

About half of the T-Shirt Company’s employees would be J-1 workers in a normal year. LeMay said their absence means the staff is only about two-thirds of the size it should be, which could force her to close some locations earlier in the evening and miss out on a lucrative window to sell souvenirs during the busy holiday season.

“If they’re not coming at all this winter, it will leave a big hole for everybody around here,” she said.

Without J-1 workers, LeMay has sought out local high schoolers and college students home on break to help fill open positions. Those people have been tough to find and employ, she said, and she is sympathetic to parents who would rather keep their children away from retail work amid record-setting coronavirus surges in the area.

“You want to be optimistic about it,” LeMay said. “But as a businessperson you have to be realistic. You have to plan for the worst-case scenario and hope for the best-case scenario.”

In the fall, she had hoped the visa ban’s Dec. 31 expiration date would allow aspiring J-1 workers to come to Aspen for the latter portion of the winter season – but updates from the South and Central American countries, which account for most of Aspen’s J-1 visas, make that seem unlikely.

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Credit Alex Hager / Aspen Public Radio
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Aspen Public Radio
Hundreds of J-1 visa workers usually come to Aspen each winter for seasonal work. Even though a ban on the visas is set to expire at the end of December, American consulates abroad are stalling an important step in the application process.

American consulates in countries such as Argentina and Peru are not scheduling appointments for visa applicants until after the new year, said Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs at the National Ski Areas Association.

“In a perfect world, we would want them to come in early December,” he said. “For some of these students who want to come and work for three or four months – if they’re not getting interviews until January, our season is going to be half over by the time they get to the U.S. So that’s a real challenge for us.”

Those appointments are a pivotal step in the application process for workers coming to the United States, and communication about why they are on pause has been murky.

“We just don’t know what’s going on,” Byrd said. “You would think that the State Department would communicate some of this to the stakeholder community, and they just haven’t.”

Byrd postulated that the Trump administration, which has a track record of being “antagonistic to immigration,” could be dragging its feet, stonewalling foreign visa applicants and the American businesses hoping to hire them. He suggested there could be legitimate health and safety reasons that consulates avoid scheduling appointments during a pandemic, but questioned why they could not be carried out virtually.

The Trump administration could also extend the visa ban into 2021. The president originally cast the ban as a way to free up jobs for young Americans during times of record unemployment, but immigration advocates and industry leaders in the U.S. said many of the  jobs, especially seasonal positions, would not likely be filled by Americans.

Byrd said the incoming Biden administration is likely to undo the freeze on work permits, which includes the J1 and H-1B visa, among others. Biden has not yet given any indication when he would do so, but has spoken favorably about the visa programs included, and could theoretically reverse the ban any day after he is inaugurated in late January.

A federal judge issued an injunction against the ban in early October, exempting businesses that are members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – which includes many ski areas. Trump later appealed that decision in court.

Regardless of the October decision and pending case, visa seekers are still left without a path to the U.S. as long as American consulates abroad are not scheduling interviews for applicants.

“There are just so many unknowns on this, and so little information coming out of the State Department on this,” Byrd said. “And all of this is going on in a pandemic.”

Even with all the uncertainty around J-1 workers, Aspen Skiing Company, one of the area’s single largest seasonal employers, saw a record number of applicants across the board.

SkiCo still struggles to fill all of its positions because many are unable to find housing, said Jeff Hanle, SkiCo spokesman. Meanwhile, the company is hopeful they will have J-1 workers in future seasons.

“We’ve probably realized that’s not going to happen this year and we’re going to need to make do without them, and we will do that,” Hanle said. “A lot of those J-1s are returning J-1s who come season after season, so let’s hope everything works out and we get them back here next year.”

It normally fills about 10% of its winter workforce with the visa holders. And with the Biden administration expected to undo the visa ban, Byrd said he is confident J-1 workers will return to ski areas for the 2021-2022 winter season.