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Cook County Chamber searching for visa alternatives

People ski down one of the runs at Lutsen Mountains. (file photo / courtesy Lutsen Mountains)

The Cook County Chamber of Commerce is searching for options to reduce the local tourism industry's reliance on seasonal foreign worker visas.

The concern is that, given the national climate regarding immigrants, the H-2B temporary worker visas on which many tourism businesses in Cook County rely is "so politically vulnerable," said Chamber Executive Director Jim Boyd.

"While it's great the employers this year got the workers they needed through H-2B, at least the large employers, it feels good that we're trying at least to take our fate into our own hands to some degree and not be so totally dependent on the political whims in Washington — are they going to like the program this year, are they going to hate it? We're trying to be masters of our own fate," Boyd said.

Tourism accounts for more than 80 percent of the county's economy, while the remaining businesses are indirectly affected by tourism. Businesses turn to the H-2B visas to fill positions because there aren't enough local residents to fill the seasonal tourism jobs in the county. Temporary non-agricultural international workers can work in the United States for either a winter or summer season on a H-2B visa, which are capped at 66,000 visas per year. Businesses go through a stringent process to be able to hire a worker on a H-2B visa, providing evidence that they tried and were unable to fill positions domestically. Cook County's tourism industry also relies on the J-1 student visa, which allows international students to work in the United States through an exchange program. Although the exact number of visa holders isn't known, the Chamber's informal survey of businesses last year found there were about 400 workers in the county.

Cook County's tourism industry was left scrambling last year when Congress failed to extend a provision of the program that didn't count returning workers against the annual cap of 66,000 visas, creating a shortage of workers in places like the Northland. The changes have led the Chamber to consider alternatives, including a program to recruit Puerto Ricans who have hospitality experience, but became displaced when Hurricane Maria hit the island last fall. It's "an experiment" that's showing promise, Boyd said.

"There are some Puerto Ricans who — the climate is just a total 'no, we're not going,' but there are others for whom it's not a problem. We have a number of Jamaican people who have become residents of Cook County, married local people. So, clearly being from a tropical climate isn't an absolute bar against people agreeing to move here," Boyd said.

Cook County is learning from Taney County, Mo., home to the tourist destination of Branson, about how to develop a sustainable recruitment program. Taney County has 2,000 jobs to fill and its recruitment efforts have led to more than 200 Puerto Ricans moving to the Branson area, according to the economic development agency Taney County Partnership. To bridge the cultural gap between employers and the new employees and create a welcoming environment, "Hispanic 101" and "Cultural Competence" workshops have been held to help businesses recruit, grow and develop the Puerto Rican workforce for Taney County.

"It's hard work and they're far larger and more organized, have more funding than we have, but we're working on it," Boyd said.

Kathy Buckman, human resources director at Lutsen Mountains, said the Chamber needs to have a more developed, dependable plan for recruiting Puerto Ricans before the resort could begin to consider hiring them to fulfill its worker shortage.

Lutsen typically brings in a total of 40-45 international workers on J-1 and H-2B visas to work at the resort and ski hill during winter. Buckman noted she was able to hire a couple year-round employees in housekeeping and plans to petition for eight visas for housekeeping positions instead of the 14 workers they've had in the past on a H-2B visa. She noted she hasn't had luck in the past filling housekeeping positions with local residents. Buckman said she's expecting the petitions for housekeeping to be approved and the resort has a group of returning international workers in housekeeping, but its ski lift operator positions can be difficult to fill. She said she plans to fill the ski lift jobs with students with J-1 student work visas next winter.

Lutsen had its petition for H-2B visas denied last winter because they tried to combine a couple of positions into one. Buckman said she used J-1 workers to cover the staff shortage caused by the denial. However, students working on the J-1 visa head home a month before Lutsen's ski season ends. This past winter, Buckman was able to hire workers for the remaining weeks of the winter season from ski resorts that had already closed for the winter.

"It was really pretty shaky through the winter," Buckman said.

Lutsen was able to hire enough workers for this summer. However, it will have a shortage again this fall when the J-1 student workers head home before the end of the tourist season in October. The resort tries to "do creative thinking" to cover the shortage, but it's not easy, she said.

"That's why we opted to, especially in our high season, try to get our petition for H-2B (approved), which they can fulfill the whole season. We pick the dates based on the business' needs so that works out a lot better for us," she said.