Aspen’s aspens may be fire-gold in autumn glory, but many local employers are already turning their attention toward the winter season’s staffing needs — and encountering some new roadblocks when it comes to getting J-1 visas approved.
Ryan Sweeney, who owns both Ryno’s Pub and Pizzeria and Silver City in downtown Aspen, received notice this week that all four of his visas would not be granted this year — a first, he said.
“We’re short-staffed,” he said. “The reason that we hire J-1s is because there aren’t Americans to fill those jobs. There’s not the guy who’s saying, ‘Hey, I live in Carbondale. I’m looking to make $14 an hour or whatever as a food runner.’ They just don’t exist.”
Without the support of temporary international residents participating in the cultural exchange under the J-1 visa, Sweeney fears his full-time staff will risk burnout this winter, when seasonal business levels are highest. He estimated that in past years he typically hired about eight people on J-1 visas.
“Right now, I’ve got to go to my staff and be like, ‘Listen, those helpers we thought we were going to have — the barbacks, the backservers — unless we find some miracle and we’re able to get some high school kids, some college kids on break, you guys are just going to have to work harder,” he said.
And that can negatively impact his employee retention, not to mention customer service, he noted.
“I can’t necessarily hire people in other positions because if I put two bartenders on right now instead of a bartender and a barback, now they’re splitting their tips and they’re looking [for work elsewhere],” he continued.
“The competition for employees has been insane in the past couple of years. And I think this winter, if other places experience not getting J-1s like I’m not, I think it’s going to come to a boiling point. You’re going to start to feel it.”
Sweeney is not the only one to receive disappointing news regarding visa applications for the upcoming winter season. Bill Doherty, general manager at Kenichi, has so far seen two of his four J-1 visa applicants denied.
“I got the same email Ryan got yesterday,” he said. “We usually have anywhere between three and five [J-1 workers] in years past. This time, two out of four were denied. We’ll see what happens with the other two. They’re good kids; they’re not afraid to get their hands dirty. It’s definitely kind of frustrating.”
The email in question came from CCUSA, a leading agency in arranging cultural and temporary work exchanges, especially for summer camp counselors, au pairs and seasonal workers.
“It is with great regret that we inform you that we have begun to cancel a number of Independent students for the upcoming Winter 19/20 season due to a shortage of visas,” it starts. “CCUSA, along with numerous other sponsors, have taken all the necessary steps in rectifying this situation but unfortunately a solution has not come about.”
It goes on to list four categories of visa participants for whom CCUSA “will be canceling,” including first-time independents, independent returnee students that have been on the program for more than two years, independent returnees not returning to a CCUSA partner employer and visa waiver students or independents with no updated employer information since Sept. 26, 2019.
CCUSA did not return a phone call to clarify that terminology, but Sweeney wasn’t surprised by that. He, too, has been unsuccessful in speaking to anyone from the agency via phone.
“I’m sure they’re blowing up,” he said. “We essentially sold these students this product. Feel bad for businesses, whatever, but these guys, a lot of them have flights; they have lodging lined up or housing — first, last and security. And now they’re having to come back on that because they had a deal with the agency and with myself, the employer, that they would come here and have a job. It was all arranged. It’s going to be a nightmare.”
Independent restaurants aren’t the only businesses being impacted by the J-1 “issues,” as Jeff Hanle, Aspen Skiing Co.’s vice president of communications, put it.
“We’re in the same boat; I think everyone in the country is probably in the same boat,” he said. “In the past, we have had several hundred J-1s, and we’re expecting to have 25-30 percent fewer [this winter].”
That translates to a very different dynamic not just internally among staff, but also for the guest experience, especially for international tourists.
“It’s particularly important here, with all our international visitors, that we have people who speak these languages,” Hanle said. “[The administration is] thinking they’re protecting the U.S. labor market, but we’re sort of at full employment. Everyone who wants to work is working, so for all these businesses to keep operating, it’s important that we have access to those resources.”
While the W Aspen human resources department did not return a call for this story, front desk operator Seth Pedersen didn’t hold back when describing the benefits of working alongside someone from a different country. The W Aspen, the city’s newest hotel, is managed by Marriott International.
“It’s so cool,” he said. “I’m working with someone with a J-1 right now, and she speaks six languages. Marriott literally made a company off of diversity, and we need our diversity because it helps in so many ways.”
CCUSA’s email ends on an apologetic note, but also encourages a political response.
“We understand that this may make it difficult for your business to function at full capacity, therefore please be sure to reach out to your local congressman/representative/senator and make your voices heard,” it states.
Additionally, the CCUSA homepage of its website features a bright-red, caution-sign adorned content block titled “SAVE THE J-1 PROGRAM,” with a teaser saying “US government policy is currently threatening the future of the J-1 visa.”
But comments from the U.S. Department of State assured that’s not the case.
“Visa records are confidential and we cannot comment on individual cases. There have been no changes to U.S. policy regarding how J-1 visas are adjudicated,” special communications specialist Nichole Allem said of her colleague’s response to an email inquiry.
The local numbers, provided by the State Department, confirm that any decline in J-1 visas are new to 2019. From 2016 to 2018, Aspen and Pitkin County — which include Snowmass and Woody Creek — the federal government approved 812, 807 and 840 J-1 visas, respectively. The overwhelming majority of those — more than 70 percent — were in the summer travel/work category.
“I expect  numbers to be available in early 2020,” Allem said.
Still, perception and experiences in the Aspen business community at the moment hold that there is a shortage of J-1 visas. As such, SkiCo, at least, is adjusting accordingly.
“We’re working hard to fill those spots domestically, and I think our wage increase is certainly going to help,” Hanle said of the company’s $15-per-hour baseline, up from $13.50. “We’ve brought on quite a few people in our recruiting department. From what I heard last, it’s working. We’re quite a bit ahead on job applicants right now.”
Now, he’s just hoping domestic hires are able to successfully find housing once they arrive for the winter season.