Vail Resorts Increasingly Turn to J-1 Visa Exchange Program for Cheap Labor, Leaving Locals in Lurk
Katelyn Welsh and Nancy Vazquez investigate how local ski resorts increasingly use J-1 exchange visa holders, and new legal action potentially changing overall dynamics of how these mountain businesses operate.
Originally Designed to Improve International Relations, Now Improving Budgets
Many Tahoe locals know that around peak ski season, minimally paid foreign J-1 workers cram into undersized bedrooms to do grunt work for long hours at their favorite ski resorts.
What they might not be aware of is the innocent and understated origination of the J-1 visa, widely viewed now as a program that improves the profit margins of big corporations.
The J-1 visa is a non-immigrant visa given to individuals involved in cultural exchange programs in the United States. It was originally designed in 1961 due to the Fulbright- Hays act to cultivate positive international relations. It wasn’t designed to be relied upon for a workforce for ski resorts.
According to the Justice in Motion website, a non-profit that advocates for migrant worker rights, the U.S. Department of Labor doesn’t oversee or regulate the program. Nor does it take into consideration the program’s effect on the labor market.
It is only moderately regulated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the State Department. The DHS regulation consists of creating a database system that tracks the J-1 visa holders. The job of the State Department is to recruit sponsors who administer the program. These sponsor organizations typically run a gamut of J1 programs and act as a liaison between the employer and the J-1 exchange visitor.
We reached out to a sponsor organization known as InterExchange, the sponsor organization of a Northstar J-1 employee, Mateo Garcia. After reaching out by phone and email, they never responded to our inquiries. We were looking to discuss the extent to which they are overseen by the government.
Local Numbers are Hard to Come By
An estimated1,141 people with J-1 visas entered Nevada in 2021 and 14,127 in California, according to the map above provided by BridgeUSA. Nationwide 300,000 visas were issued in 2021. Local numbers are harder to come by due to resorts not readily giving out that information.
The J-1 also covers au pairs, summer workers, international visitors, and other programs.
Northstar, one of a few local Vail resorts, declined to answer how many J-1 visa holders were employed this winter. “We don’t share employee numbers or data, per policy,” said Sara Roston, Northstar and Heavenly’s communication representative.
However, a manager at Northstar who spoke under anonymity to protect his job, referred to as Chazz in this article, was surprised they concealed this information. He sees first hand how much they rely on them.
“J-1s take up 80% of the staff, so I don’t know why they wouldn’t want to talk about it,” said Chazz.
Northstar and Heavenly declined to answer further questions raised regarding J-1s in our initial attempt to get answers. They said it was per Vail policy and suggested we reach out to Ski California.
Ski California is a non-profit trade association representing ski resorts in California and Nevada. Ski California initially responded to us asking what our report was about and where it would be published. When we told them we were investigating local ski resort use, the percentage of J-1 staff, and housing issues, no response was returned.
Employers Gain Convenient Cheap Labor and Save on Taxes
Unlike other non-immigrant work visas, there are no requirements for employers to be vetted or undergo a labor market certification by The State Department, the U.S. Department of Labor or Citizenship or Immigration Services. Those closest to the type of regulation an employer undergoes are sponsors, who are government regulated. However, sponsors have no requirement to monitor employers according to part 62 of title 22 of the Code of Federal Regulations.
Private or public entities can act as sponsors and may act independently with the assistance of third parties. The rules they must follow are to maintain the legal status originally registered with (partnership, non-profit, etc.), accurately report information regarding their exchange programs and exchange visitors including any spouses or dependents.
They must also provide accurate information when advertising their exchange services. A sponsor may not represent themselves as endorsed, sponsored, or supported by the State Department or the U.S. Government unless directly financed.
In acting as a liaison, sponsors provide exchange applicants with job offers from hiring companies. InterExchange connected Garcia with the Northstar job offer contract, which started December 11th and ended March 11th. He was able to extend the contract through April 1st with help from InterExchange.
InterExchange’s website says that the positions offered by employers must not displace domestic U.S. workers, must be seasonal and entry level, must provide interactions with Americans, and pay similarly to U.S. counterparts.
When InterExchange was asked about what checks are in place to make sure employers meet these requirements, they never returned our calls or emails.
There are many reasons why hiring J-1 visa holders is so lucrative to employers, starting with tax savings. Employers are exempt from paying federal employment taxes. Corporations can save up to eight percent according to Justice in Motion.
When asked how much Northstar saves by hiring J-1 exchange visitors, Northstar declined to reply.
Employers are not required to pay for travel or immigration fees as Northstar J-1 employee Carolina experienced. Carolina had to pay $2,000 to travel here independently along with other expenses which included $1200 to her sponsor.
However, the wage here was higher than the wage in her home country and allowed her to cover these expenses.
“Yeah in North Star they were paying me minimum wage, but it was more [than wages in Argentina]. I could pay for my trips and everything,” said Carolina.
Sponsors conveniently relieve employers of the strenuous process of interviewing and hiring. Employers are only required to pay minimum wage to J-1 workers, provide seasonal and entry level jobs that provide interaction with Americans, and pay similarly to U.S. counterparts. With this setup, the ski resorts receive convenient short term labor and save on taxes.
Solution to Staffing Shortages or Covering Up a Bigger Problem?
InterExchange’s website offers J-1 visa students as a solution to employers needing to find staff for peak seasons with the one caveat that they must “not displace domestic U.S. workers at worksites where they will place program participants.”
According to Chazz, J-1 positions at Northstar indeed are not infringing on U.S. positions, but it is more nuanced than that. They don’t infringe on U.S. positions because U.S. workers refuse to accept the low wage paid by these mega ski resort corporations. This is a fact verified by another anonymous Northstar employee.
“They have to outsource because the locals work elsewhere because there’s closer housing and higher pay,” said Chazz.
A Slap on the Wrist is Motivating Some Changes within Vail
Vail Resorts will be implementing a new business plan next season. They will raise their minimum wage to $20 an hour and are investing millions to provide affordable employee housing at their Park City, Whistler, Vail and Okemo resorts.
This announcement came coincidentally after Vail was preliminary approved to settle a class action lawsuit involving its employees. In this lawsuit, Vail denied the claims of violating state and federal wage and hour laws, but agreed to a $13 million settlement. This settlement was approved by the Superior Court of California in the Eldorado County Branch, which encompasses the California side of South Lake Tahoe on Feb. 1st.
“Since they got a slap on the wrist, they are finally going to be paying their employees appropriately,” said Chazz.
The wage increase will go into effect in the 2022–2023 season. The one thing Northstar did finally comment on is that J-1 workers will be receiving the $20 minimum wage as well. This is $5 more than the required state minimum wage that they are required to be paid. Something that will be welcomed by Carolina if she pursues a third season with Northstar.
Carolina has experienced a wide range of wages with Northstar. She started her first season before California increased its minimum wage. This made living in Tahoe and dealing with the housing crisis challenging. The only housing she could find was an Airbnb, which was the most expensive of all the places she’s lived in Tahoe.
“We were paying $700 each. We had to pay for the cleaning two times a month. It was expensive at that moment because the minimum wage was $12,” explains Carolina.
On January 1, 2022, California increased its minimum wage to $15 an hour. Now in her second season at Northstar, this wage increase has helped Carolina purchase a truck to drive to work and she was able to find an apartment for $500 a month.
Garcia also got paid minimum wage. He feels the company could have paid them more because of all the responsibilities they had, but didn’t mind since he was there for the experience, not the pay.
“Everyone earns the minimum wage, mountain safety, ski patrol and lift operators. I think that’s the problem, ski patrol is well, ski patrol, and they have to earn more money,” said Carolina.
Although this wage increase could be welcomed by recurring J-1 visitors like Carolina, it could cause a reduction in opportunities for visitors like her.
Chazz predicts increasing the minimum wage to $20 could change employee demographics by providing an incentive for local and Reno workers to commute when they otherwise wouldn’t have.
“Since they’re getting paid 20 bucks an hour and they’re gonna get a ski pass, that’s a lot more enticing and I think we are going to see an increase in domestic workers by at least 30%,” Chazz predicted.
4 People to one Bed, Stacked Housing Challenges
Newly constructed and acquired affordable employee housing will be available for the 2022–2023 season at Park City and Vail Mountain. Other resorts such as Whistler Blackcomb and Okemo are in the process of seeking permits and beginning construction.
This might be too little, too late for some, who can no longer afford to live near the resorts.
Finding housing in Tahoe is more difficult than ever after the COVID-19 ignited housing crisis. The crisis was ignited by many city dwellers fleeing to Tahoe to escape the populated cities, according to Michael Walker, a 14-year Tahoe resident and avid skier at Palisade Tahoe. This drove housing prices up, causing many owners who had been renting their places to locals for years to evict their renters and sell their properties.
Last April, Michael Walker was required to leave the house he had been renting to allow the homeowners to sell it. In his 14 years in Tahoe, finding housing was never as hard as it was during this time. He found housing was very limited and expensive.
“Finding affordable housing now is next to impossible with all the Bay Area residents buying up the majority of properties that have been rented to locals,” said Walker.
Finding housing as a J-1 exchange worker has proven to be just as difficult, as Garcia and Carolina discovered.
Garcia began looking for housing before coming to America with no success. Determined to not pass up this experience, he came here without having a place to stay. Garcia stayed in a Motel 6 in Reno the first three nights. He then made his way to Truckee and stayed at the Redlight Hostile.
“I was almost crying for finding housing,” said Garcia.
He feared he wouldn’t find anything and would lose all his money. He finally found a place to rent, but had to leave the same month he moved in. Not including his hotel and hostel stays, Garcia has had to move three times in his stay since December. Reasons have included the rental contract coming to an end or difficult roommate situations.
Carolina was living in a crammed Airbnb her first season working for Northstar in order to make it somewhat affordable. “That season I lived in Kings Beach, we rented an Airbnb. There was like 10 people there. I was half an hour and 40 minutes by bus. That season I had to use the bus,” said Carolina.
Garcia experienced similar cramped housing. In his first house, in order to make the three bedroom home for $5,500 more affordable, nine people lived there. At times, two to four people would sleep in the same bed.
For the right price of $611, Garcia could rent a corner of a bed. “It was too much for us,” said Garcia.
Something that added to the challenge was Northstar’s ambiguity on providing employee housing.
Garcia’s job offer through InterExchange listed limited housing available. When Garcia asked his manager about it, she said that was an error and that housing wasn’t available that season.
To investigate, we reached out to the housing email listed on Garcia’s October 27, 2021 dated job offer. We received an automated return email saying the email was no longer being monitored “as of August 2021”, but some informational links were provided.
When “Northstar Employee Housing” was googled, a Northstar website was listed that has a list of recommendations and cities of where to find housing, but no Northstar specific housing options. It even said, “Each participant must come prepared to research and find their own housing upon arrival.”
The closest housing recommendation listed is Sawmill Heights Apartments, which is one mile away. We called Sawmill Heights and spoke with the assistant manager, Laura. She confirmed Sawmill Heights is a separate entity and not affiliated to Northstar. We asked her if she knew anything about Northstar employee housing.
“They [Northstar] don’t have their own housing set up through them, but they have a committee to help find you housing,” said Laura.
What’s more, according to Laura, Northstar used to own Sawmill Heights. Sure enough, according to a Placer County Recorder deed, Northstar sold the apartment complex to KG Sawmill Investors LLC on December 16, 2010.
Coincidentally, this was around the same time Vail Resorts bought Northstar. Vail Resorts published its press release of the acquisition on October 25, 2010. This was less than two months before the apartment complex was sold. The apartment complex that could potentially provide employee housing was apparently not included in Vail’s acquisition of Northstar.
When Northstar/Vail Resorts were questioned about whether they were aware of the housing crisis and what they were doing to mitigate it, they declined to answer.
What is still unclear is whether Northstar provides employee housing. Garcia’s manager mentioned the limited employee housing listed on his job offer was a mistake on the contract, but according to Chazz, also a manager, Northstar has a building in Kings Beach called Candlestick and places employees in the Biltmore Hotel.
We contacted Northstar’s human resources and after navigating a convoluted web of phone calls, which provided websites, which provided FAQs and webpages already seen regarding housing, we submitted an online form with a five business day response time policy.
To our surprise, we received an email the very next day.
“Depending on which department you work for, there is some Employee Housing available for Northstar Employees,” the email indicated.
They did not elaborate on which departments.
Despite the stress and confusion and mixed messages, Garcia didn’t mind. “I found housing and I had a really good time at Northstar,” he said.
“The Experience of a Lifetime”
Vail’s mission listed on their website is to “create the Experience of a Lifetime for our employees, so they can, in turn, provide exceptional experiences for our guests.” They say, they are “dedicated to delivering seamless guest service by continuously investing in our team and the infrastructure, systems and training programs that support the employee experience.”
Garcia felt the “Experience of a Lifetime’’ was accurate. During our in-person conversation a few weeks before he left, Garcia was smiling as he talked about his experience. Connecting with new friends, the views and trails at Northstar and the snowboarding and skiing all made it worthwhile, he said.
Garcia’s mother suggested he go to America to improve his English. According to Garcia, “the most opportunities that we have is if we learn a lot of English.”
“‘Would I rather be feared or loved? I think both,’” he said quoting Michael Scott from the U.S. version of The Office. He was delighted when he arrived here and could understand most of what he heard.
Garcia worked as an attendant in Northstar’s rental department with typical nine to 10 hour days with 30 minute meals or “ride breaks.” He was responsible for assisting guests with obtaining rental equipment as a boot feeder and din technician.
This fulfilled InterExchange’s requirement for having interactions with Americans. Most of his co-workers in the rental department were foreigners, which meant that most of the interactions he had with Americans were with customers.
Carolina’s reason for traveling was simply to get the experience. “I’m going to this exchange program to see how I can develop myself in another country,” Carolina said. Back in Argentina she was working at a cafe and a studio, drawing for architecture. However it was hard to save money. Jobs in Argentina pay less and pay in cash, not to mention it’s hard to even get hired for a job.
“My salary here [Argentina] was super low and I couldn’t save money. I couldn’t afford to pay my insurance or my things. I wasn’t paying rent because I was living with my parents,” explained Carolina, in regards to the time prior to working her first season at NorthStar. This season she was working as a ticket scanner lead.
“This season I came because they offered me a supervisor position. I couldn’t get the position and I wanted to make more money, that’s pretty much why I came back,” said Carolina. However she explained how this season Northstar was a mess. Carolina’s manager quit halfway through the season so they didn’t have one and everything was disorganized.
“Most of the time they didn’t even care what happened to the workers,” Carolina said. Carolina isn’t the only employee to have an experience that paled in comparison to the “experience of a lifetime.”
The minimal and impersonal interactions between managers and lift operators, low pay and “mega corporation” feel has left Chazz feeling skeptical. “I think they say all these values, but the reality is, they don’t care about their employees, they just care about numbers,” said Chazz.
On the heels of a $13 million class action settlement and the changes following it, including millions going into increased employee wages and housing initiatives, Vail attempts to scratch some employee complaints off of its list of challenges, which now also include irregular winters. Employee demographics could potentially change with positions being more highly sought by locals, leaving less opportunity for J-1 visas. It all remains to be seen how it will shape out next season.