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Lawmakers sparring over immigration reform didn't renew an exemption for returning foreign workers. First to feel it: ski resorts.

The bitter standoff in Congress over immigration reform is hitting home in ski country this winter.

Vermont's Stowe Mountain Resort, for example, usually relies on about two dozen seasonal foreign workers as ski instructors. Not this year. Stowe had to do "heavy duty recruiting" for its ski school, including a first-ever hiring clinic in January, said human resources director Julie Frailey.

"We need to find some folks," Frailey said. "We do whatever we can without dropping our standards."

Ski resorts are among the first of several seasonal businesses nationwide to feel the pinch from a change in federal law that cut back the number of visas for foreign workers brought in for temporary or seasonal jobs. Hotels, restaurants, seafood processors and landscaping companies are worried about filling jobs they say they can't find Americans to do.

"The timing couldn't be worse," said Parker Riehle of the Vermont Ski Areas Association, noting December was a busy month with plenty of snow.

Before adjourning last year, Congress failed to renew a law allowing foreign workers who came to the United States over the past three years to return for another season without being counted against an annual cap on such workers. The push to renew the returning worker exemption got caught up in the broader fight over immigration reform. Key lawmakers balked at a renewal unless it was part of a comprehensive immigration reform plan.

The number of H-2B visas for nonagricultural seasonal and temporary workers is capped at 66,000 annually. As the program has grown more popular, Congress in recent years has passed extensions that exempted returning workers from the annual cap.

The latest extension expired Sept. 30. That capped the number of H-2B visas at 33,000 for the first six months of fiscal 2008 - less than half the number of visas issued for the same period a year ago. There were 71,000 H-2B visas granted for the first half of fiscal 2007, including about 38,000 for returning workers.

Ten of Vermont's 19 ski areas rely on foreign, seasonal workers. In recent winters, the resorts have employed roughly 700 H-2B visa workers, Riehle said. They made up about 8 percent of the state's seasonal ski resort workforce of 9,000 employees.

"In order to fill out the final numbers of the seasonal ranks, it's really become a necessity," Riehle said.

"It is the single most important thing I am dealing with. I have 103 people to find."

William Zammer, president of Cape Cod Restaurants Inc., which employs about 400 workers during peak summer season. Zammer hires 103 workers from Jamaica each summer; some of his foreign seasonal help will earn $800 or more a week.

Hit hardest by foreign worker shortage

A look at businesses and professions feeling the pinch from a change in federal law cutting back the number of foreign workers who can be used for temporary or seasonal jobs as part of the H-2B visa program:

Ski areas

Resorts, hotels and restaurants in winter and summer vacation destinations

Seafood processing companies

Landscaping and lawn-care firms

Pool installation companies


Pool lifeguards

Bus drivers in resort areas