Problems with work visa program hit Steamboat business hard | CraigDailyPress.com

Problems with work visa program hit Steamboat business hard

Tom Ross/Steamboat Today

A Moving Mountains chalet attendant serves apres ski apptizers on a deck overlooking the Steamboat Ski Area.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Long winter hours are a given in Steamboat Springs' hospitality industry as hundreds of thousands of vacationers cycle through the town of 12,700 permanent residents in the course of a ski season.

However, the staff at Moving Mountains in Steamboat, which specializes in renting luxury homes to a clientele willing to spend as much as four figures a night, is working extra hard this winter.

Company founders Robin and Heather Craigen were unable to secure the limited work visas they've relied upon for almost 20 years to bolster their staff with guest workers from other countries – most recently from South Africa.

"We're working 18-hour shifts in order to cover basic services for our guests," Robin Craigen said.

For the first time in a long while, he's taking shifts driving one of the sleek purple shuttle vans used to ferry his high-end clientele from their grand homes and condominiums to the ski slopes or a downtown Steamboat restaurant.

The ultimate experience at Moving Mountains, where guests can ask for a chef to prepare gourmet meals in the kitchen of their vacation home, is the "catered chalet" package. It includes a chalet attendant, typically one of the young adults here on an H2B visa.  Their role is to cater to the guests throughout the day with breaks to go skiing.

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Looking forward to warm cookies with milk before retiring for the night? Need reservations at Cloverdale? Want help arranging for a ski rental van to come to the home? The chalet hosts are there, taking care of guests from 6 a.m. to sometimes 10 p.m. when they are finally finished straightening up the home.

Visa program tightening up

Craigen enjoys the additional opportunities to mingle with his guests, but what mystifies him is how the nearly 20-year track record he has built up with the H2B visa program seems no longer to be sufficient to allow him to hire the guest workers his family business depend heavily upon.

"How did we get here?" he asked out loud.

Jessica Valand, Colorado area workforce director for the 10-county region that includes Steamboat, said that as of the end of December 2017, the unemployment rate here had grown to 2.5 percent, or the equivalent of 400 people, up from 1.9 percent at the beginning of October 2017.

Yet, most business owners here would say it's very difficult to hire the personnel they need.

Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. spokeswoman Loryn Kasten told Steamboat Today that Trish Sullivan, vice president of human resources/risk management, had formerly pursued H2B visas to secure ski season workforce at the ski area but suspended that effort because "federal regulations made it too difficult."

"The resort may explore the H2B visa program again for the 2018-19 winter, but a final decision on that has not been made yet," she said.

Moving Mountains had 25 applications from young South Africans, all of them viable, for 13 positions that were advertised last fall.

Craigen said he has gone to lengths for many years to establish that he cannot fill the jobs with American citizens. He said he runs help-wanted ads year-round with no response, in part to make the case that he can't fill his staff without the visas.

More and more, Craigen is thinking that the Trump administration has put the brakes on the visas as part of its immigration policy. 

The repeated applications he made for 13 visas this year were met with the same response: "The evidence submitted with the response was not sufficient to establish the seasonal need of the temporary catered chalet attendants."

Craigen said that when he wrote to U.S. Senators Corey Gardner and Michael Bennet of Colorado, he received the same response.

His inability to secure H2B visas this year has put plans to expand the Moving Mountains business plan into other ski resorts on hold, Craigen said.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1.