Foreign workers are back, but obstacles still exist – Sheridan Media

This story first appeared on Cowboy State Daily.

By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

After two difficult years for the hospitality industry, the summer of 2022 should be somewhat “normal” for Wyoming’s tourism industry.

But the industry continues to be hampered by a lack of workers, making foreign workers more important than ever to the industry.

Fortunately, more and more doors are opening to employers who hire foreign staff.

“With the visa process reopening, allowing more workers to be able to work, we are able to see fewer job openings as they are filled,” said Morryah McCurdy, vice president of business development for Advance Casper, the city’s economic development arm. “We definitely use them in any capacity they legally can.”

There are primarily two types of work visas used by foreign workers and their potential employers in the Wyoming tourism industry: “J1” visas, which are applied for and paid for by students and workers seeking a experience abroad ; and “H2B” visas, which employers pay for and arrange on their own.

“In 2020 we didn’t have visas because of the pandemic,” said Tina Hoebelheinrich, executive director of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce. “So that just wasn’t a possibility. And the challenge last year, in 2021, was that many of our US embassies still had restricted hours or weren’t open to the public. And the one of the visa work program requirements is that they have an in-country interview at a US consulate.

This year, Hoebelheinrich told the Cowboy State Daily, there are fewer hurdles — but the federal government is filing an unprecedented number of applications for foreign worker visas.

“The good news is that sooner than ever, the Biden administration released an additional H2B and J1 visa quota,” she said. “But you know, the truth is, that still won’t be enough.”

In communities like Cody, which is located near the eastern entrance to Yellowstone National Park, foreign workers are essential to businesses, especially in the hospitality industry.

“(Without the foreign workers), we would have had to close a bunch of rooms,” said Bill Garlow, owner of the two Best Western hotels in Cody. “Our crude would dip, it would really drop. We have maybe 8 or 10 who are local, who live in Cody and work all winter when the H2B’s aren’t there, so we can keep part of the hotel open. But (without them) we would probably be closed for the whole summer. We couldn’t function without them.

Garlow has owned and operated hotels in Cody for decades – his great-grandfather was town founder Buffalo Bill Cody. Garlow told the Cowboy State Daily that he had relied on Jamaican workers using the H2B visa process for many years, and when COVID began to impact overseas travel, it forced a shift in the hotel workforce.

“When we’re short like that, like in 2020, we’ve had a lot of overtime,” Garlow said. “This year we have an application for 40 workers, and I think we have about 11. But we’re pretty sure another application is going to be approved, which would bring another 17.”

Garlow explained that most Jamaican workers who come to Cody are returning employees.

“About 90% have already been here,” he said. “They’re great people and they work hard, and we really appreciate them.”

The two hotels in Garlow offer a total of 190 rooms – for small operators, like Brenda O’Shea and her husband, Mark, who own A Western Rose Motel, they only need two or three extra hands to operate their 24-room motel. But even that was a challenge.

“In the past we’ve usually worked with Chinese people because they can stay later, they can stay until the end of September,” Brenda told the Cowboy State Daily. “So once China was removed from the board, we opened it up, but there are only certain countries you can choose from.”

O’Shea said she hoped to hire four girls from Kazakhstan this summer, but she just learned that two of them had their visas refused and she is still waiting to hear from the other girls.

“Two of them have their visa appointments on May 12, and they have to be here on June 1,” O’Shea said, expressing frustration with the situation.

She said she had a few locals to help, but without the extra hands, O’Shea and her husband will be working many overtime hours themselves this summer.

“My husband is ready to drive to the border and pick people up,” she said. “I even contacted Senator Barrasso’s office and said, ‘Listen, I’ll take Ukrainians, I provide jobs and housing, it’s a beautiful city, it’s very safe.’ And their office said, “We’re not accepting refugees at the moment.”

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