CODY — For owner Brenda O’Shea, a good summer at A Western Rose Motel requires a certain factor no matter how many customers she gets: employees.
“Without them I either have to shut down part of my inventory, or the few employees I do have, burn them out to the point where they have to leave,” she said.
Although their customers have returned in full force after a bit of a downturn in 2020, local hotel and motel owners are not out of the woods just yet. The supply of H-2B and J-1 visa workers, a pool many Cody business owners tap into, remains highly reduced, and for some owners not available at all.
“I know that I’m not the only seasonal business facing this challenge,” O’Shea said. “Hotel rooms are going to be unsold because of the lack of workers and rising labor costs.”
The purpose of both J-1 and H-2B workers is to bridge gaps between foreign countries and American communities and to fill jobs that are hard to find resident workers to perform. In 2020, their presence was lacking as no J-1 workers were allowed and about 32% fewer H-2B workers were let in due to coronavirus concerns.
H-2B workers are available this year, but their approval has come in a delayed and halting manner, causing immigrant visa backlogs, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.
From June 2020 through March 31, former President Donald Trump had banned the entry of all new H-2B individuals with limited exceptions. Despite this, the U.S. Department of Labor reported the highest rate of H-2B jobs unfilled by U.S. workers in 2020 of any year on record.
President Joe Biden’s administration allowed Trump’s suspension of H-2B visa workers to expire on March 31.
In mid-April, the Department of Labor said it would be raising the cap for these seasonal visas from 66,000 to 88,000 for the second half of the 2021 fiscal year. On May 25 the ruling went into effect.
The supplemental visas include 16,000 visas available only to returning H-2B workers from fiscal years 2018, 2019 or 2020, and a remaining 6,000 visas for residents of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Employers who claim they will likely suffer irreparable harm if they cannot employ more H-2B workers before the end of the fiscal year may submit a request with the DOL.
Bill Garlow, owner of the Cody Best Western, said he has historically employed H-2B workers from Jamaica.
“They’re really fine people,” he said.
This year he has been guaranteed 17 H-2B workers but is still waiting to hear whether he will get any of the 23 others he has applied for.
“We need them really bad,” he said. “We’re in a real tough spot if I don’t get them.”
J-1 workers, a cheaper option for businesses, are an even rarer commodity this summer not only in Cody but across the entire nation.
A major hurdle hindering those interested in these positions has been the lack of access to foreign embassies to complete the necessary J-1 visa. Embassies in certain countries have limited hours or are still closed because of the virus. O’Shea said she was told there are around 7,000 applicants from Turkey alone waiting to come.
“I sent a message to the (U.S.) Ambassador of Turkey urging his office to get back to work,” O’Shea said. “On the ambassador’s Facebook page, there was a post about a ranger exchange program. I’m not implying that’s not important, but how is it that there’s a park ranger exchange program, but we can’t get the people we need to work?”
There are travel restrictions for people coming from 33 different countries, including China, O’Shea’s usual source of J-1 employees. She said there’s a chance she could receive some workers from Mongolia, but isn’t holding her breath.
J-1 employees who worked in America in 2019 or interviewed to work in 2020 are, however, eligible to work this summer if they are not from one of the 33 restricted countries.
Kings Inn Assistant Manager Levi Helvey said they’ve been able to get a few J-1s for his hotel on the West Strip, but their arrival was delayed by about a month.
“Everyone is having a hard time getting them,” he said.
Although H-2B employees may be a better bet than J-1 workers, they also come with a cost.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the employer must either advance all visa, border crossing and visa-related expenses to H-2B workers and pay for them directly, or reimburse all such expenses in the first work week. The employer must pay for the return transportation and daily subsistence for any workers who work until the end of the job order or are dismissed from employment for any reason before the end of that period.
O’Shea said she cannot afford these costs nor does she qualify to employ these workers anyway since her business isn’t open until May.
“It’s not something a seasonal motel on an economy budget (can afford),” she said.
She said she is also frustrated with how complicated the processes are to get these foreign workers and vented her frustrations during a recent meeting with U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis’s staff.
With the foreign worker pipeline severely diminished, O’Shea, Helvey and Garlow have turned their attention to local workers.
“Cody is a city of almost 10,000,” O’Shea said. “Remove the elderly, the children, the students, whether it be high school or college who don’t work, the professionals and those that work in hospitality year round. That doesn’t leave many people left for seasonal businesses.”
Garlow has raised wages and is offering a special promotion where employees will earn an extra $2 per hour that will go towards an end of season bonus, a total he estimates ranging from $1,600-$2,100 that can be redeemed in September. He also says he can continue to offer employment in the offseason.
But he said his efforts have been thwarted by certain businesses that are offering higher base wages for kitchen workers.
Many businesses around Cody are going out of their way to promote what they will pay their workers. The Comfort Inn, for instance, has a sign prominently displayed that it will offer housekeepers a rate of $15 per hour.
O’Shea said she has even turned to friends and family in other states in an attempt to recruit workers, but with no success. She is promoting her motel jobs as entrepreneurial opportunities.
“You can learn everything about running your own business,” she said.
Even more frustrating for her, she’s had many locals express an interest in working, yet only if she agrees to pay them under the table.
“It’s really sad that we have to bring people in from another country because our own citizens are worried about the benefits that they collect from the people who are actually working and paying taxes,” O’Shea said.