Resorts Tap Cultural Exchange Winter Labor Force

Colorado ski areas hire hundreds of college students from South America to fill seasonal jobs, but the practice is drawing criticism.

Copper Mountain – Colorado ski resorts that have exhausted their
quotas for hiring foreign temporary workers are resurrecting a
1960s tradition: enlisting college students to meet low-wage labor

But these days, the students come from South America.

Ski towns now employ hundreds of foreign students – from Brazil,
Chile, Argentina, Peru and elsewhere – under a U.S. government
cultural-exchange program that allows them to work while
experiencing life in America.

Critics complain that this growing reliance on foreign students
strains the spirit of cultural exchange and hurts U.S. workers.
Congressional investigators also recently found that the government
is failing to oversee the program as required.

Across the Colorado mountains, South American students now tune
skis, greet guests, run cash registers, flip burgers, wait tables
and more – generally for around $8 an hour, but sometimes for as
little as $2.50 an hour, plus tips.

They often juggle two jobs to afford housing. Some learned the hard
way this year that the life of a resort worker entails scrambling
for bed space and gobbling too much fast food.

Even so, “it’s been a good deal for me,” said Brazilian Leo
Cavalcante, 21, herding minivans through a snowpacked parking lot
here. He’s motivated more to hone his English and have an adventure
than to earn money, he said.

The government’s program for bringing in students “was developed
as an exchange program to expose foreign nationals to the United
States. It was not intended to take over jobs,” said Sally
Lawrence, administrator at the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of
Education and Cultural Affairs.

The rules let students on summer vacation – which in the Southern
Hemisphere coincides with winter here – work for up to four months,
Lawrence said. “A lot of people in the United States don’t want
these jobs. As I understand, there’s a (labor) shortage.”

Not fair, contends Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for
Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., which favors stricter
limits on hiring abroad to fill U.S. jobs.

“A cultural visa is turning into a work visa,” Krikorian said.

Hiring U.S. college students instead of foreign students “might
make a lift ticket cost more,” he said. “But is importing foreign
labor to keep ticket costs low a proper function of government?”

A Government Accountability Office investigation concluded in
October that State Department overseers must do more to guard
against abuses, such as students overstaying visas and exploitation
of students. A State Department “compliance unit” was not fully
funded, the GAO report said.

Each year before ski season, Colorado resort operators dip into an
alphabet soup of government visa programs to build their workforce.
First, they line up as many as 14,000 “H2B” foreign temporary
workers. Then they hire hundreds of South American students under
the J-1 “summer work travel” program.

The State Department issued 106,000 J-1 visas to admit foreign
students under the work-travel program in 2005, up from 71,218 in

Unlike the 66,000 H2B visas the government gives – a
congressionally set national quota exhausted for this year by
mid-December – J-1 visas let students roam and switch jobs, and
there’s no cap.

Some 52 private companies, designated by the State Department,
recruit foreign students through agents abroad. The students and
their families pay up to $2,500 for visas, airfare and other fees.
The sponsoring companies then must supervise students and report
their whereabouts to the Department of Homeland Security.

If evidence arises that a sponsor isn’t fulfilling its
responsibilities, the company would get a telephone call to “find
out what’s going on,” Lawrence said.

In Colorado, Copper Mountain this year hired about 200 South
American students, said Sarah Wing, the resort’s human resources
manager. Copper’s parent, Vancouver, British Columbia-based
Intrawest Corp., also relies on foreign students at its Winter Park
and Mary Jane ski areas.

Vail Resorts Inc., which owns Breckenridge, Beaver Creek, Keystone
and Vail, employs “a few hundred,” said Nicole Greener,
international staffing manager.

Without foreign workers, Greener said, Vail Resorts would have to
rethink its labor strategy. The downside of hiring students is that
they can only work for four months. “They don’t get you through
the whole season,” she said.

Colorado ski resorts’ “increasing reliance on foreign workers
suggests that they can’t hire Americans at the wage that they’re
paying,” U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., leader of the House
immigration reform caucus, said in a written statement.

“The J-1 program is being used not to expand a foreign student’s
understanding of the United States, but to undercut American
workers,” Tancredo said.

Beyond that, “our myriad visa categories actually encourage

Tancredo favors a single worker visa system.

This winter, South American exchange students in Summit County
discovered what U.S. workers long have lamented: Although the
resorts are eager to hire, housing is scarce and often

Dozens of Brazilians were left crunching through dark, icy streets
on a night in December, with temperatures below 10 degrees,
searching for vacant motel rooms. Some clashed with managers over
occupancy limits. A window was broken. Tempers flared.

Some huddled daily at the Frisco Information Center between work
shifts for warmth and free access to e-mail. Copper Mountain
managers, whose 500-unit worker dormitory was full, directed
students to Leadville, 25 miles away over 11,300-foot Fremont Pass,
to find rooms.

Cramming into various motels for a month became “a huge problem
for me,” said Gabriella Rocha, 19, a Brazilian working two jobs in

“It’s not the way I wanted it to be. I don’t want to be
vulnerable. I want to know how much I’m going to pay each month,
and where I’m going to stay.”

Local mothers got involved, opening church doors and taking
students into their homes.

“Somebody needs to be overseeing this closely,” said Jill
Clement, director of the Frisco Information Center, who adopted two
Brazilians and a New Zealander. “We don’t want to see this happen

Foreign students were told in advance about job and housing
opportunities, and many chose to make arrangements on their own,
said Janice Haigh, vice president of Camp Counselors USA, a
California-based sponsor company that recruited 6,000 students on
J-1 visas – including many working in Colorado.

Most have reported an address as required, Haigh said, though
there’s nobody on-site in Colorado to verify their whereabouts.
“We’re assuming we have an honest bunch of participants,” she

After an initial scramble, exchange students this month were
settling in and, after 12-hour workdays, partying. Many flock to
the Salt Creek disco at Breckenridge, where bouncers now check
passports instead of driver licenses.

On the job, South Americans bring “a work ethic you don’t find in
twentysomething Americans. They’re polite, friendly. They’re always
here,” said Leslie Holmes, assistant manager in Spencer’s
restaurant at the Beaver Run Hotel. “And the younger workforce
revitalizes the nightlife of the town – absolutely.”

Foreign students say that in spite of hardships, they’re also
glimpsing modern U.S. values.

“I’m working three jobs. I’m sharing a house with 12 guys,” said
Bruno Cunha, 24, of Brazil, behind the counter at Frisco’s
Loaf-N-Jug around midnight.

Now he and his girlfriend want to leave, he said. Soon they’ll have
enough money. They plan on savoring some free days drifting around