Travel and hospitality is the second largest industry in Wyoming. As tourists flood the state in summer, the industry relies on seasonal workers to keep things running smoothly. But more and more, seasonal workers have been harder to come by in the local workforce so businesses depend on visa programs that bring in foreign guest workers. The two most commonly used are the J-1 visa, which sponsors students, and the H-2B visa, which brings in workers to fill in temporary, non-agricultural positions.
The visa process is complicated. And it's causing problems for Wyoming’s tourism communities that depend heavily on legal immigrants for their summer workforce. For Cody, it’s just getting the workers in the first place.
Cody takes pride in its Western hospitality. As such, it’s very important to hotels to provide an enjoyable experience. James Blair is the chief operating officer for Blair Hotels, which has three hotels in Cody. He said in order to provide that kind of service, he needs to be fully staffed.
“But what's our option? You know, to just be short staffed and not be able to deliver good service and clean rooms and good food and whatever,” said Blair. “It's kind of like, whether you like it or not, it's what you have to do...to maybe get a workforce.”
He needs legal immigrants to have a full workforce. His workforce includes 60 housekeepers and out of those 60, he depends on the H-2B visa workers to fill 25 of those positions.
The H-2B visa allows U.S. businesses to bring in foreign workers to fill temporary housekeeping, maintenance and construction jobs. But businesses need to prove that they are not able to get enough local workers.
“The common misconceptions, like around town, is that you’re bringing in these foreign workers, you know, instead of hiring our kids or instead of hiring locals,” said Blair. “It’s simply not true. We hire all the locals that we possibly can…that are employable, and it's not enough.”
But Blair started to run into some problems with the H-2B visa two years ago. In 2017, he applied for 30 workers and got none. Blair Hotels wasn’t the only business unable to get all the workers they applied for. This was thanks to Congress changing a rule. Now returning workers would be included in the annual 66,000 cap of visas given out, substantially decreasing the number of workers allowed in the states making it difficult for a number of Wyoming businesses to get what they need.
“You can find like ten persons to work locally like for this month and by the middle of the month five or six of them is gone,” said Sam Russell. She’s an H-2B visa worker who has been working in Cody for 11 years. She, also, is the housekeeping manager for Sunset Properties, which owns the two Best Westerns in Cody.
The small, local businesses in Cody find that H-2B workers are much more reliable than other visa programs. Tina Hoebelheinrich, the executive director of Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, said because most H-2B visa workers return year after year, they know the lay of the land so there’s less need for orienting workers.
“What we lack are the resources for training, learning, and development,” she said. “Those are things that typically the owner is going to have to step in and do.”
Both Blair Hotels and Sunset Properties are trying to raise this issue to Wyoming’s congressional delegation. James Blair said something needs to be done soon.
“l don't care how they achieve it but it just seems like the amount of workers that they’ll allow in is not enough to cover the need,” said Blair.
Unfortunately, it probably won’t be fixed by next year. And so businesses are already worried about next summer and whether they will they get any workers at all? So just in case, they are looking at different options. One possible option is the J-1 visa program, which brings foreign students into the country. But Blair said that's not a very good option.
“The J-1 students that come over I don’t think their primary reason for being here is working,” said Blair. “Their primary reason for being here is to sightsee. I think that's great but it's just not a strong work ethic or maybe an intention of why they're here.”
But Blair can’t be picky at the moment and is willing to do what he can to avoid being short staffed for a third year in a row.