Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park sits on Iron Mountain, above Glenwood Springs. It’s easy to pick up on its vintage, Western look. The main plaza looks like the set of a John Wayne movie. What might be harder to pick up on is its small contingent of international workers.
Monique Thorpe, 25, operates The Cliff Hanger at the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park. At 7,100 feet, it is “North America’s highest in elevation roller coaster.” Guests really shouldn’t put their hands up. The ride’s structure weaves narrowly in and out of itself; above Monique, a rubber hand is tacked to a sign, re-emphasizing the warning.
Monique has ridden the ride before.
“When I got off the first time, I felt sick, like someone beat me up or something,” she said.
When Monique first came to work at the park from Jamaica two summers ago, roller coasters weren’t her thing, but she tried anyways; new experiences are what she came for.
“Living in Jamaica is wonderful, you know? It’s home. But it’s like your bedroom and you need to see the rest of the house,” she said.
Monique is one of 20 international students with the Adventure Park this summer. The others are from places like Norway, Slovenia and Turkey. They’re all here on J-1 visas. Decades ago the program was created to foster “cultural exchange.” The point of the program was diplomatic: Get international visitors and Americans interacting.
The current program has its critics. In 2014, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group, concluded the J-1 program is “little more than a source of cheap labor,” and scolded practices like hiring J-1s as housekeepers. Because that’s not a job that allows for much of the intended cultural exchange.
One of the Adventure Park’s 20 J-1s works as a janitor. Eric Brotherson is the HR Manager for the Adventure Park and Iron Mountain Hot Springs. He maintains the position complies with J-1’s guidelines.
“The janitorial position at Iron Mountain Hot Springs is going to be roaming around the grounds, picking up trash, wiping down surfaces, getting a lot of interactions from guests, ‘Hey, can you show me where the restrooms are, or the locker room?’
Brotherson said the J-1 program gives the park access to a dependable labor pool available when they need it.
“We’re a very seasonal business … you know, our busiest time is going to be between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day,” he said.
After Labor Day, the park stays open everyday until the end of October. The local college and high school students have gone back to school and this is when the J-1s are essential. They also need to return to school and coming to the U.S. can be quite the financial sacrifice.
Monique thought, in total, it cost her $2,000 to come to work at the park.
Brotherson and potential employees connect through recruiting firms. He tells the firms what he’s looking for and they send him resumes. He interviews candidates on Skype. Once the J-1s are hired, they pay the recruiting firm a program fee. They also pay for a visa, for their travel, and their health insurance. Once they’re in Colorado, they pay their food and most of their housing costs.
Because these costs add up, the park guarantees a minimum of 32 hours each week. It also rewards them with a end-of-the-season bonus.
But, if they’re not making enough, Brotherson lets them look for additional work around town. A few nights each week, Monique works the register at 7-11 and stacks the shelves. She works about 40 hours a week at the park and 20 at 7-11.
Despite the 60-hour-week, Monique loves the J-1 program. She meets people from around the world. She experienced snow for the first time this past May.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about making back the money, it’s about the cultural experience,” she said.
For Brotherson, the J-1 program is essential to the park’s business model. If it ever went away, he thinks it would be very difficult for them.
Monique will travel when she’s done with work this fall. She already has some elaborate plans for the money she’s saved working two jobs.
“This time it’s to do all the other things I didn’t get to do the last two times. The paragliding, the skydiving, and maybe a trip to Vegas just to see what the hype is about,” she said.