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Some foreign workers say they won’t be back after tough season of high rents, low hours

Some J-1 visa workers resort to cramped living conditions in order to live in Park City during the winter.
Some J-1 visa workers contend with cramped living conditions in order to live and work in Park City during the winter.

J-1 workers don’t always arrive in the U.S. with a clear or accurate understanding of what their housing situations and expenses will be. Advocates want more oversight of the young employees.

Before heading to America for ski resort work, J-1s fill out what are called job participant forms. Those describe how to find housing, how much it might cost and how many hours of work to expect weekly. Those forms are a through line between employers and sponsors; sponsors are for-profit companies that work with exchange visitors to find jobs and accommodations.

A Park City Mountain employee showed KPCW their form. On it, a recruiter with Park City Mountain owner Vail Resorts wrote that finding short-term housing in Park City would be “moderately easy,” and average monthly rent would run around $700 per month.

The worker said the reality of finding housing turned out to be quite different.

“It was really, really hard," she said. "We were like two months looking for it, and we tried every single website. It was really hard but we found a really, really tiny apartment.”

Several J-1 resort workers said they are paying around $1,000 per month for housing this winter.

The form also directs workers to use Facebook pages and Craigslist to find housing, despite multiple recorded instances of scammers taking advantage of seasonal workers by either advertising a place that doesn’t exist or packing too many renters into a space.

KPCW spoke to a dozen J-1 workers and agreed not to use their names in this report to protect their employment status. They described frustration and disappointment. While some said they’ll be back in the future, about half said they won’t return to Park City because of difficulty in finding housing and uncertainty around income.

One Park City Mountain employee described living in Heber for one month, followed by a week stay at the Park City Hostel after figuring out the rental they were about to put a security deposit on was a scam. They eventually found a place to stay for the winter with four roommates; it’s a one bedroom, one bathroom apartment in Canyons Village that costs $800 per renter per month, plus utilities.

Another employee who found housing in the Salt Lake Valley paid $500 per month for rent. But he also spent $500 a month for a rental car to get to work on the mountain.

A group of eight J-1s paid $7,500 a month for a two bedroom apartment in the Snyderville Basin. That’s a little over $900 per month each.

Summit County resident Becky Yih has been helping J-1 workers get acclimated and find housing for over a decade.

She said there’s no proper care of foreign seasonal workers, and pointed to a lack of oversight.

“The sponsor agencies are supposed to consider the availability of appropriate housing before signing people up to come here,” Yih said.

Between sponsor payments, first months’ rent, and plane tickets, several J-1s said the upfront cost of working a winter in Park City is around $5,000. When they get to work, most make around $20 an hour. They stay and work about three months and some fly home with a couple thousand dollars of income in their pocket.

Yih said resorts’ increasing need for labor exacerbates a system that’s hard and costly to navigate and can result in substandard living conditions.

“My personal opinion is that Vail Resorts came away with such bad reviews last year that they stocked up on the [exchange visitors] this year.”

Park City Mayor Nann Worel said there are about 1,900 J-1 visa workers in the area this winter - that’s up 67% compared to last year. Much of that increase is attributed to the lack of COVID-19 restrictions.

Another concern outside a lack of housing has been a lack of work hours. Several J-1s said they’ve had to get second jobs in order to stay in Park City, as their hours at the resort were significantly cut after the peak holiday season.

Christian Center of Park City Executive Director Rob Harter said in February that the nonprofit was seeing fewer international students at the center’s Tuesday night dinners, which are normally full of J-1 resort workers. He said that was a result of many of them having to pick up second jobs.

J-1 contracts shared with KPCW show an average amount of work hours for employees, but no guaranteed minimum.

Park City Mountain spokeswoman Sara Huey said the average hours for J-1 workers at the resort this winter exceeded the target of 32 hours per week. She added that affordable housing is a crisis in Park City, and the resort is committed to creating more for its workforce. Through a master lease, Park City Mountain housed over 350 employees this season at a new affordable housing development in Canyons Village.

Responding to concerns on a recent earnings call with investors, Vail Resorts CEO Kirsten Lynch said J-1 workers make up fewer than 10% of the company’s total workforce. Lynch said changes in hours are a part of the natural ebb and flow of Vail’s business.

“The goal that we have as a company is to always be very disciplined about costs. And always be flexing and adjusting. And this is normal, we do this every year,” Lynch said. “I understand that that may not meet some of the expectations of some of our employees and we try to support them in helping them address that. But to be clear, we do not guarantee hours.”

The problem is not unique to Utah.

According to the Summit Daily, a Colorado newspaper, a man in a chicken costume recently received a trespassing ticket outside Vail Ski Resort for protesting the treatment of J-1 workers. His sign read : “informing J1s by email that there is ample housing in the valley should be criminal.”