Int’l workers finding Summit a tough place to settle
December 29, 2005
SUMMIT COUNTY ” Emilio Saionz imagined he would spend the winter skiing Colorado’s snowy slopes, and supporting his adventures by punching the clock at a local restaurant or hotel. He pictured himself renting a condominium or an apartment with three or four other seasonal workers to call home while he was on break from college in Argentina.
But since Saionz arrived in Breckenridge on Dec. 19, he’s whiled away his hours lugging his bags between hostels and motels and pouring through the newspaper looking for a place to live, instead of enjoying Summit County’s laid-back lifestyle.
The 22-year-old Argentinean signed up for a work exchange program through the Chicago-based Spirit Cultural Exchange that would allow him a four-month working visa in the United States with an extra month tacked on for travel.
A friend, Gabriel Chebi, 20, enlisted in the same program.
For about $2,000, the two university students received the five-month visa, purchased plane tickets and paid their program dues.
Though the two agreed they would secure their own jobs and housing once in the U.S., they’ve found it isn’t as easy as they thought it would be.
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They organized jobs at Beaver Run Resort before they flew to Colorado, but locating a place to live in the county has been the real chore, Saionz said.
“It’s impossible. People we met in the streets who have housing, they got it because they arrived on the 30th of November; we arrived on Dec. 19,” Saionz said while flipping through the classifieds at the Frisco Information Center.
The center on Main Street has become a haven for Chebi, Saionz and others in their situation because it offers computers with free internet service.
Information center director Jill Clement said she’s seen more than two dozen stranded students walk through her door looking for help in the past two weeks.
“I’d heard 30 different stories. Two kids walked in and I said, ‘Enough is enough, you’re coming home with me,'” Clement said, recalling how she invited two South Americans to stay at her house. The center’s other two employees have taken several of the exchange students home with them as well.
Paula Sa, 20, is one of the international workers staying with Clement.
She’s a nursing student in Brazil who signed up for a travel exchange program similar to the one Chebi and Saionz are in, except she went through CCUSA. Sa also opted for the independent program and found an evening busser job at a local Chinese food restaurant.
She hasn’t had any luck, however, nailing down a second job so she can earn enough income to support herself.
Sa also can’t find a place to rent for the season because all homeowners want a six-month to one-year lease, something she can’t commit to with a limited visa.
“We’re very careful about the number of self-placement students we accept, because they can get into trouble (finding jobs and housing),” said Kathleen Gault, president of Spirit Cultural Exchange.
Both Gault’s company and CCUSA offer two options for their international work exchange programs. One is independent, where participants find their own employment and housing. If they opt for the full program, the companies place students in jobs that come with affordable housing.
The jobs are often front-line positions with lower wages, such as working at a fast food restaurant or housekeeping at a hotel, Gault said.
Through Spirit Cultural Exchange, the price difference between the two choices is only $100, but Gault said oftentimes participants select the self-placement plan because they think they can get a better job than what the program will find for them.
“A lot of times they can find maybe a better paying job, but housing is hard to come by or expensive, so this happens,” Gault said, adding that the program materials make clear the possible difficulties in finding a seasonal home.
Breckenridge Resort spokesperson Nicky DeFord isn’t surprised to hear about the struggles. Nearly all of the resort’s jobs are filled and employee housing at Breckenridge Terrace has been at capacity since Thanksgiving.
Most of the resort’s international workers are in the U.S. on the H-2B visa, which guarantees the person will only work for one company while in the country and will be around until the season is over, DeFord said.
Alternatively, Chebi, Saionz and Sa are all using the J-1 visa, which often expires in January or February when the resorts still need help.
Regardless, DeFord said all prospective employees are considered for jobs equally, but timing is everything.
“It’s pretty slim pickings once you get to the middle of December at the ski resort,” DeFord said.
Copper Mountain Resort recruited about 100 students with J-1 visas over the summer, offering employment and housing, but continues to see a significant number of students arriving at the mountain with visas in hand, seeking work and a place to stay, said human resources manager Sarah Wing.
While the resort explores employment and temporary housing options with the students, its resources are limited: Copper’s employee housing is full for the first time since the winter of 2002, when it was established.
Many of the workers without accommodations will likely leave Summit County and head someplace where it’s easier to settle in.
Saionz and Chebi found out Tuesday that Spirit Cultural Exchange had found them housekeeping jobs with rooms to rent at Vail, and left town Wednesday.
Saionz also said he ran into a group of eight Chileans Tuesday who were having similar problems, and they told him they were splitting up. Four were off to Miami to find work for the season and four were sticking it out in Summit County for one more month before heading home.
Nicole Formosa can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 13625, or at email@example.com.