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Hospitality Employers Rely on Foreign Workers to Fill Workforce Gaps

Published Tuesday Nov 7, 2023

Author Scott Merrill

Seasonal team member working the ropes course at Bretton Woods. (Courtesy of Bretton Woods)

Seasonal and international workers have been coming to the White Mountains region—and NH—for more than 100 years. In 1900, when Joseph Stickney, a coal broker and developer, bought 10,000 acres across from the Mt. Pleasant House to build what would become the Omni Mount Washington Hotel, 250 Italian artisans were brought in to do the stonework and hand plaster work that people continue to admire.

Craig Clemmer, director of sales and marketing for the Omni Mount Washington Hotel, says the workforce in the North Country fluctuates, and the grand hotel is always in need of seasonal workers. Some of those workers come from the local community while others come from all over the world. “There’s an ebb and flow,” Clemmer says, explaining that seasonal workers account for over 100 of the hotel’s 700-plus employees that include everything from room attendants to grounds maintenance staff. “We acquire as much local talent as we can, but we also have H2-B and J-1 folks on staff. This property has always utilized seasonal and
international workers.”

The H-2B visa program Clemmer refers to allows U.S. employers to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary nonagricultural jobs while the J-1 visa program, known as the BridgeUSA program, allows foreign students and others to take part in study as well as work-related exchange programs approved by the Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

For NH’s hospitality sector, which has faced a significant workforce shortage during the pandemic that it is still recovering from, these visa programs have been essential to secure the workers businesses need to keep their doors open. With NH unemployment at 1.7% in July—the lowest in the nation—finding workers to fill thousands of seasonal jobs required to keep NH’s hotels, resorts, restaurants and amusement parks thriving throughout the year can be a challenge.

To bridge this workforce gap, businesses hire international workers, “Workampers” (see sidebar), high school and college students, and others looking for temporary work. “The seasonal workforce is very important, especially in the summer and fall when the majority of our visitor guests come to the state, but they are important in the winter months as well,” says Charyl Reardon, president of the White Mountains Attractions Association.

Seasonal international workers have become one long-term solution to workforce shortages in many areas around the state where towns see their populations swell in the summer and shrink in the winter, says Mike Sommers, president and CEO of the NH Lodging and Restaurant Association. “Visa workers have been used for years because this is a way to work through busy seasons,” he says.

At the Omni Mount Washington Hotel those international workers include ski instructors, cooks, lift attendants and a host of other part-time and full-time positions. To entice those workers to the grand hotel, Omni Mount Washington offers such perks as seasons passes to Bretton Woods, discounts for hotel stays, dining and spa services. “These folks are part of the Omni family, and they’re very important to our industry,” Clemmer says.

New Hampshire’s ski resorts, which rely heavily on a seasonal workforce, use a mix of international workers and local workers, says Jessyca Keeler, president of the Ski NH, the ski industry’s state association. “We certainly try to hire as many local people at our businesses as possible, but because we operate largely in rural areas, there often isn’t a large base of people to pull from,” she says, adding that much of NH’s North Country, where most ski resorts operate, is a high-volume area for tourism, and competition for workers is high. “You’re pulling from the same group of people who are potential local employees, and it definitely gets more competitive in the summer months.”

According to Keeler, between summer 2023 and winter 2024 there are 361 J-1 visas and 280 H-2B visas spread across 32 alpine ski areas. The H-2B visas are split across two ski areas—Loon Mountain and the Omni Mt. Washington’s Bretton Woods. “There are a lot of college students from other countries coming here and learning about the United States, and this can be a great learning experience for them,” she says.

Reardon says workforce challenges were more significant two years ago during the height of the pandemic but persist in the hospitality and tourism sector that relies heavily on seasonal help. “We tend to see difficulties when we’re relying only on the local work force,” she says, citing the challenge of high school and college students leaving early for school. “When you’ve had them all season and they leave, there can be a scramble in August to fill the gap.”

Story Land seasonal team member working at the swans ride. (Courtesy of Story Land)

Story Land, which needs around 300 seasonal employees, had around 200 this past summer, says Lauren Fullerton, director of marketing, adding that 90% of the park’s staff are seasonal. The amusement park owns the Swiss Chalet hotel next to the property, which housed 75 international employees this past summer. The lack of seasonal workers forced Story Land to reassess operations and close the park an hour earlier at 5 p.m.

Somers adds that the shortage of workers overall and especially in the hospitality sector has been a shock to the economy that has been exacerbated by the rise in gig workers and remote work since the pandemic. U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster (D-NH) says the pandemic caused many people to leave the workforce due to child care issues and health concerns, and many didn’t return even when the economy recovered. “The bottom line is that international workers are one solution to the workforce problem, but the problems and challenges are very broad,” Somers says.

Strengthening VISA Programs
When U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster began holding roundtable discussions with business leaders in the tourism industry in the summer of 2021, their biggest concern was a shortage of workers. This prompted Kuster to seek bi-partisan support for cultural exchange visas. “It’s hard to find workers on a seasonal basis,” says Kuster, who passed a resolution in 2022 along with U.S. Rep. Blake Moore from Utah expressing congressional support for the BridgeUSA programs. In June 2023, Kuster and Moore reintroduced the resolution.

“[In 2021] I was hearing from ski areas and summer attractions in the North Country who serve in the state’s tourism industry, which is the No. 2 part of our economy. I was hearing folks couldn’t find workers,” Kuster says, explaining that one alternative for help are seasonal visas for cultural exchange students. “For ski areas and amusement parks, it can be hard to find workers on a seasonal basis. These young people do a great job, and they go back to their home countries with positive feeling about the U.S. It’s an investment in our future.”

The BridgeUSA program brings approximately 300,000 participants from more than 200 countries and territories to the United States each year. In 2022, according to the U.S. Dept. of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, NH hosted 3,936 foreign workers who filled a range of positions, including camp counselors, ski resort lift operators and research scholars. Of that number, 2,317 were in the Granite State for summer work.

Molly Rice, general manager for the Woodstock Inn Brewery, says the Inn wouldn’t be able to operate as steadily without its international workers. The Inn had 28 international students working full-time this summer and five-to-10 part-time staff. “We would be in a completely different space without these workers,” she says, noting that in 2020 the Inn had only 10 J-1 students and needed to close for a week. “If this were to happen today, we’d have to close one to two days a week, and everyone would be working 90 hours per week.”

Story Land employs young people from Turkey, Taiwan, the Philippines and many other parts of the world, says Fullerton. “Our HR team uses sponsors who are the liaisons between embassies and American businesses with J-1 visa applicants,” she says, noting that not everyone gets approved. “We’re having a hard time with Turkey this year for instance.”

Fullerton says Story Land will continue increasing the number of J-1 visas. “This area is the most attainable in terms of growing our workforce,” she says. “There are only so many people in the
local communities.”

While work visas help fill the workforce shortage gap in NH, there are challenges for businesses using the BridgeUSA program as well as H-2B Visas, says Somers. One issue involves the application process, which starts in early January. Visas are issued by the U.S. State Department, and the Department of Labor sets a cap on how many will be issued. Businesses seeking summer help start the application process in the fall the year before. “If you submit an application for 40 workers, you will get some in various rounds of the lottery,” Somers says. “It’s a stressful part of the process.”


Workampers: Employee
Nomads are Another Source of Seasonal Workers



    Another growing segment of the seasonal workforce are essentially nomadic workers who roam to various states throughout the year securing temporary jobs. Story Land is among the NH employers tapping into this workforce, known as “workampers”—people who live out of campers and RVs or tents at different locations around the country. In addition to a paycheck, workampers generally also receive compensation in the form of a free campsite and free utilities.

    Deb Vazey is a workamper who has worked at Story Land for the past five summers. She works during the summer months with her husband living in a 26-foot RV they park at the amusement park. The couple started workamping in 2015 and have worked all over the country for the National Park Service and at places like Story Land. “I have children overseas, and this helps pay for flights to see them,” Vazey says, adding that she loves to travel.

    Vazey says the age range when she started workamping tended to be people over 60 but that now many young people in their 20s and 30s have begun giving up full-time jobs and hitting the road.

    She and her husband recently sold their home in Florida so they could be on the road most of the year. “Any time I’m on a beach I’m happy.” 

    Most places the couple work have hook ups, she says, but the Vazey’s have gone “boondocking,” going up to 34 days without hooking up to electricity.

     After leaving Story Land, Vazey and her husband will be heading to Sarasota, Florida. to enjoy a “summer vacation” for a few months in October. “Home is wherever we’re at,” she says. “We didn’t give up a home; we retired and moved into a bus. We like traveling and meeting a lot of different people.”


Rice says the Inn has used H-2B visa workers in the past but explains these visas are more restrictive in terms of the type of work people are able to do. “The biggest difference is that H-2Bs can only work the specific job they’re brought to do,” she says, adding that over the past couple of years there have also been bureaucratic issues finding international workers.

Rice works with host companies like InterExchange and says it is “always up in the air” when it comes to securing visas. “It’s always a question of ‘are we actually going to be able to get them, and when will we be able to get them,’” she says, adding that this year has been significantly better than last two. “They were able to assure us of everything, and it was on time.”

Kuster says she is addressing the workforce shortage for employers, often caused by red tape, by co-sponsoring the H-2 Improvements to Relieve Employers (HIRE) Act. HIRE would streamline the issuance of nonimmigrant temporary work visas, strengthen existing work-related visa programs and help address immigration. “Our immigration system is broken, and Congress hasn’t moved on an immigration bill,” she says, adding that the last bi- partisan bill came out of the U.S. Senate in 2013 but was refused by the House Speaker John Boehner. “We need a bi-partisan approach to address workforce shortages and to give people legal pathways to immigration.”

Reardon says businesses applying for J-1 workers this year received a good share of what they were seeking, and she also credits the NH Department of Business and Economic Affairs (BEA) for addressing workforce challenges by creating programs in the hospitality industry. One of those programs, the NH Sector Partnership Initiative (NH SPI), is a collaborative, industry-led program that provides funding and training, among other resources, to enable companies to collaborate on workforce development needs in the sectors of hospitality, construction, health care, manufacturing and technology. “The state is building the workforce back, but there’s still work to do” Reardon says. “There is a lot of growth opportunity in the hospitality industry.”

Seasonal Work and Housing
Keeler of Ski NH says hiring locally is less expensive for ski resorts because of the cost and shortage of housing. “One of the biggest challenges for us, and really pretty much all employers these days, is finding housing,” she says, adding it is an issue whether hiring seasonal international workers or local full-time workers. “This impacts staff ranging from front-line workers to people in management positions.”

Some ski resorts, Keeler says, have turned to buying old motels or inns that can be converted into employee housing or building their own. “But again, that can be really expensive and then they suddenly find themselves in the landlord business,” she says, adding that she had conversations about this topic with the general managers of Attitash and Wildcat. “There were some conversations about a year ago about whether they could partner up with, say, Story Land on some housing where they would have their summer folks housed at a property and in the winter months house their temporary people.”

Story Land has 80 beds on its property, including the Linderhof Motel that it owns. It also offers employees a dining plan onsite serving breakfast and dinner.

Clemmer says the Omni has been housing seasonal workers on its property for years in a dorm space attached to the hotel and in several facilities that it rents in Twin Mountains. “This has always been the way,” Clemmer says, adding that housing is crucial for operations. “We’re literally like a little town ourselves. Every facet of business operations requires housing for seasonal employees, especially with the flow from season to season. We have skiing at Bretton Woods in the winter and golf in the spring and summer.”

The Woodstock Inn Brewery has bought several buildings to house its employees. “That is by far the biggest issue why we’ve lost employees,” Rice says. “There is no housing in this area.”



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