Foreign workers a critical part of Park County’s summer workforce

Businesses at the mercy of federal lottery

Posted 8/8/19

In the evenings, much of the housekeeping staff of Best Western Sunset Inn in Cody gather around the kitchen of the company’s dormitory for dinner.

They are all visa workers from Jamaica. …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Foreign workers a critical part of Park County’s summer workforce

Businesses at the mercy of federal lottery


In the evenings, much of the housekeeping staff of Best Western Sunset Inn in Cody gather around the kitchen of the company’s dormitory for dinner.

They are all visa workers from Jamaica. They cook traditional Jamaican dishes such as ackee salt fish, breadfruit and pulled pork. They laugh, share their problems with each other and talk like a family around the dinner table. They seem happy, even after a long day of hard work cleaning rooms and doing laundry.

Bill Garlow, owner of the Best Western hotels in Cody, said his business is very reliant on the temporary foreign workers. Federal regulations require the hotels to advertise the positions to Americans, but they rarely get any applicants — much less enough to fill all the positions during the busy summer seasons.

Garlow needs their help, and the Jamaican workers speak highly of their employer.

“Mr. Garlow provides us with good employment,” said Satara Elliott, who is from Kingston, Jamaica’s capital.

Like many restaurants and hotels in Cody, as well as some agricultural operations around Powell, the hotels’ ability to find the workers they need is dependent on a bureaucratic federal system that greatly increases costs and sometimes arbitrarily deprives businesses of their workforce.

It’s difficult to calculate the added labor cost the system places upon businesses, but those expenses eventually get passed on to consumers. The rules may also limit business expansions, as money spent navigating red tape can’t be invested back into the business. Yet, these businesses don’t have any other options.

“It’s critical,” Garlow said of foreign workers. “If we didn’t have them, I don’t know what we’d do.”


Help badly wanted

The dormitory at the Sunset Inn was built about 10 years ago specifically to house the company’s temporary visa staff, Garlow said; companies who apply for visa workers are required by the federal government to provide adequate housing.

The workers do pay rent, but securing the housing is the responsibility of the employing applicant. To make sure he had the housing for his workforce, Garlow built the dorms.

Granny’s Restaurant has about six visa workers on its staff, but owner Jeremy Blaylock said he’d like to have eight or nine. The problem is he has trouble meeting the housing requirements for that many workers.

“It’s tough to find rentals in Cody,” Blaylock said.

Besides advertising the positions, the employers must also pay visa workers a fair-market wage. It’s basically the same they’d pay Americans, who almost never apply. 

Blaylock said he can’t think of a time that Granny’s has gotten a response to their ads in the U.S. To fill the summer demand as tourists flood into Cody, Blaylock said many restaurants utilize visa workers.

James Blair, COO of Blair Hotels in Cody, which operates the Holiday Inn, said they might have one or two Americans apply for their positions. The housekeeping jobs, he said, are hard work, but they pay $12 per hour in the summer. So, it’s not like their wages aren’t competitive for low-skilled jobs. Americans tend to look elsewhere for work, and Cody doesn’t have a large population of seasonal workers to draw from.

“The labor pool in Cody is too shallow,” Blair said.

Garlow said they almost never get any American applicants for their open positions.


The lottery

Whether or not these businesses get foreign workers is dependent on a lottery system, and the number of visas the federal government hands out is capped. The limit was 66,000 per year, before being increased to 96,000 this past May.

Garlow said they haven’t always gotten all the 40 visa workers that they seek; in 2017, they only received permission for 30 hires.

“We were really short and ended up paying a lot of overtime,” Garlow recalled. “It wasn’t really how we prefer to do things. People get tired when they work 50 hours a week.”

Blair said their requests have also been denied in the past.

“It’s pretty hit or miss,” he said.

The applications go in on Jan. 1, and this year, the federal online system that takes the applications was so overwhelmed it crashed.

Even when employers can meet all the requirements to apply for visa workers, it’s very expensive. Not including their wages, Blair said they pay $3,000 a head for their travel, food and application fees.

Almost all of the employers who utilize visa workers pay professional services that handle much of the paperwork and other arrangements.

Much of the reasoning behind the federal caps on these workers is concerns they compete for jobs that would otherwise go to Americans, which is why employers must advertise the positions to Americans. But when businesses can’t get American applicants, they are at the mercy of the whims and glacial pace of federal policy.

The other concern driving the temporary foreign worker policies is concerns employers will fill positions with immigrants working for lower wages, which will then depress wages across the country.

A number of studies have looked into the question and found very little evidence that immigrants, even in large numbers, have significant impacts on wages.

In some cases, the impact was found to be positive. It might seem counter-intuitive that an increased supply of workers willing to take lower wages would actually increase wages on average. The reason, economists find, is that immigrants don’t just increase the supply of labor. They also increase the demand for labor. Immigrants make up only 15 percent of the U.S. population, but they start around 25 percent of all new businesses.

Looking at immigrants as only contributing to the labor supply and not labor demand is what economists call the lump of labor fallacy.


Byzantine process

There are a number of different types of visas for a range of activities, including visas for journalists, diplomats and aviation workers. Temporary workers are a subset of the visas available, and there are different types of visas for different types of temporary workers. Some are for specialty occupations, and at one time, the federal government offered temporary worker visas for nurses.

The Jamaican workers at Best Western are here on H2B visas, which are for nonagricultural seasonal temporary workers. They are allowed to be here for up to a year, which makes them appealing for positions in hotels, as they can stay through the entire busy season. Agricultural operations rely on H2A visas, which can be for as much as three years.

Blaylock of Granny’s relies primarily on J-1 visa workers, which are for cultural exchange students. His staff all come from Bulgaria.

“I’ve become more and more reliant on them,” he said.

Blair also utilizes the J-1s, but they’re not always ideal, he said. They have a much shorter duration of availability, which doesn’t cover those first and last six weeks of the season. He said those are critical times when it’s hard to fill positions. Blaylock also commented on this shortcoming.

The student workers also are here primarily to work on their English and get something more out of the seasonal experience.

“Maybe work is not their primary reason for coming here,” Blair posited.


Second home

Besides the shared kitchen and three large, shared bathrooms, the Sunset Inn dorm has a living room, a game room where the visa workers can play pool and a laundry room. The workers also have a vehicle they can use for errands.

Men and women have separate rooms, and they sleep four to six per room. While the accommodations may sound cramped by most American standards, the workers speak highly of their accommodations and their experience working here in the United States.

“Jamaicans are a prideful people. If we felt disrespected, we wouldn’t come back here,” said Elliott, the visa worker from Kingston.

She also said sharing rooms with a few other women doesn’t bother her, as she comes to Cody every year with her mind focused on earning money. Her life is back in Jamaica, and like all the workers, she’s happy to return home to her family.

“We are very family oriented. We have a responsibility to family,” Elliott said.

Elliott has been coming to Cody for six years now. She said there was a culture shock at first, but she’s since grown very comfortable with spending months in Wyoming.

“In the beginning, I was a little homesick, but now it’s like my second home,” Elliott said.

She also said people around Cody generally treat the workers well.

When the dorm was first built, the company applied for a range of nationalities, including Mexicans, Bulgarians and Russians. They were housed under one roof and Garlow said there was much less harmony in the dorms. That’s why the hotel now specifically requests all Jamaicans.

“They’re great people, hard workers and they get along,” he said.

Most years, Garlow has been fortunate to navigate the federal system, meet its requirements and keep his business running with the staff it needs. Not all businesses are always so fortunate. Without other options, businesses must muddle through the system year after year and hope for the best.

“It’s just a hassle. We make the best of it, though,” Blair said.