Aspen Skiing Co. gets creative to make dent in worker shortage
Cooperative effort with Broadmoor Resort brings 39 workers to the mountains January-March
Roshane Thompson faced a tough decision when his seasonal employment at the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs ended Dec. 31. He could return to see his wife and daughter in Jamaica until the Broadmoor needed him again in April, or he could extend his H-2B visa and go to work as a cook for Aspen Skiing Co.
As much as he wanted to see his family, the opportunity to continue working in the United States was too lucrative. Thompson said he makes as much in the U.S. in two weeks as he would working for six months in Jamaica.
“I work a lot of hours,” he said last week, adding that Jamaicans aren’t averse to putting in long days. “We’ve been trained that way.”
An opportunity to remain in the U.S. arose when Skico was forced to seek creative ways this season to make a dent in worker and housing shortages. Skico used its connections to essentially borrow workers from the Broadmoor, who were in the U.S. on H-2B visas.
The Broadmoor’s staffing needs plummet January through March, so it traditionally has let go numerous workers for the quarter then brought then back in spring.
Meanwhile, Skico was desperately trying to fill positions.
“We didn’t get all the H-2Bs we needed,” Skico vice president of communications Jeff Hanle said. There were a limited number of the worker visas available. They were long gone come winter.
A Skico manager who previously worked at the Broadmoor was aware of the situation there with the lower demand for workers at the heart of the winter. The personal connections paid off.
Skico filed for extensions for workers who wanted to remain in the States and hired 39 employees of the Broadmoor, mainly from Jamaica and El Salvador. Twenty-two of the Broadmoor crew are working at Skico’s mountain restaurants and 17 at The Little Nell Hotel.
Thompson, 27, is working as a cook at the Ullrhof restaurant at Snowmass Ski Area. He came to Aspen with two friends — Maurice Linton, 32, is working as a cook at the Merry-Go-Round at Aspen Highlands, and David Williams, 28, is working as a cook at High Alpine.
All three are accustomed to working front of house as servers at the various restaurants at the Broadmoor. Skico was desperate for cooks, so the three Jamaicans adapted. They were trained on cooking food to proper temperatures and on good presentation. Williams said he has a passion for cooking, so the new duty was an easy adjustment. The trip to the mountains opened a new world for him.
“It’s my first winter, ever,” Williams said.
The Front Range was extremely dry this year, so he didn’t see snow until arriving in Aspen shortly after the New Year.
“People warned me it was going to be really cold up in the mountains,” he said. “I was actually traumatized by what I was hearing.”
It hasn’t been nearly as bad as advertised, he said, though he noted temperatures would range from 85 degrees for a high and 60 degrees as a low in Jamaica at this time of year.
Thompson spent two seasons at the private Yellowstone Club, a residential and ski resort west of Big Sky Montana, so he is accustomed to winter. He learned to ski there. He had previously heard of Denver and Colorado Springs but knew nothing about Colorado’s ski areas.
“I didn’t know there was an Aspen,” he said.
Linton has worked for parts of five years at the Broadmoor, so he has seen winter weather before.
The trio agreed their experience in Aspen has been “fantastic.” Skico’s human resources department was accommodating, and the fellow workers at the restaurants have been appreciative.
The men were given three layers of warm cloths to deal with winter. Skico also reserved housing for many of the Broadmoor workers at The Hub, Skico’s new affordable housing complex at Willits.
“It’s the best housing I’ve had in the (H-2B) program,” Thompson said.
Skico also supplied bus passes that all three have regularly used. Williams said the buses run on time and take the stress out of the commute.
They said they have been welcomed with open arms by their work colleagues at the various restaurants. Williams said they were short-staffed in the kitchen at High Alpine when he arrived, so they were grateful for relief. He credited High Alpine chef Brad Murphy because he “believed in my talent.”
Skico’s Hanle said arranging to get the Broadmoor workers for three months has worked well but isn’t something the company wants to do every year.
“It’s not a permanent solution,” Hanle said. “We would rather have our own season-long H-2Bs.”
The prospects of that happening are improving. Hanle said the Biden administration has vowed to expand the H-2B program in future years to allow more foreign residents to enter the U.S. on work visas.
But for this season, the situation is a win for everyone — Skico gets workers for three essential months, the workers continue working, and the Broadmoor gets its crew back on April 1.
Thompson said he would urge the U.S. to expand the number of openings in the H-2B program. Many people from his country would gladly apply.
“It’s a life-changing program,” he said. “Lots of people in the U.S. don’t like hospitality work. Jamaicans love it. There are a lot of workers in Jamaica that could be helping out.”
Aspen Skiing Co. also sought some creative solutions to the Roaring Fork Valley’s affordable housing crisis.
In November, Skico put out a plea that puzzled some local residents. The company launched the “Tenants for Turns” program where it would offer a full-season pass or other freebies of equal value to local residents who rented a spare bedroom to a Skico employee.
Critics scoffed that it was a desperate measure doomed to failure. Instead, 30 valley residents answered the call.
“That’s housing for 30 of our employees, which we consider a homerun,” said Skico vice president of communication Jeff Hanle, noting that the program was rolled out late in the pre-season.
Skico put employees in touch with the prospective landlords and let them work through details of the rental agreement. The Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority determined that residents of affordable housing could rent out a room without the $1,200 inventive package counting against the cap on the rental rate.
“It’s definitely something we’ll see about turning into an annual thing,” Hanle said.
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