When Oksana (not her real name) arrived in Jackson Hole, Wyo. in 2014, the very first thing she remembers was the mountains. She was awestruck by their rugged beauty. Awe turned to shock when she was shown her home for the next four months. It was a dump, she says.
"I am from Serbia. I am not afraid of nasty places," Oksana says.
She shared a bed—not a bedroom, a bed—with three other girls. Once a day, they were trucked from their rented house in Alpine, Wyo., 40 minutes southwest through the mountains, to their job at a local hotel. The van driver was "many times drunk," Oksana says. She was promised a comfortable room with Wi-Fi. She got a trailer with no running water.
Oksana's story is not uncommon in Jackson Hole, where temporary foreign workers are the labor lifeblood of the service industry. They are here from all around the world—cooking and cleaning for the valley's other chief import: tourists. Thousands are here on temporary work visas like the J-1 and H-2B to perform seasonal work local employers say no one else will touch.
They're coming to America
When it works, the guest-worker program profits all. Employers get a temp who doesn't need benefits. Foreign nationals bank U.S. dollars and party like rock stars. Still, the system, at its best, raises questions of whether it drives down wages, contributes to unemployment and fosters an overarching socioeconomic imbalance.
At its worst, people like Oksana get steamrolled.
"The guest-worker program is great in principle. It's wonderful for everyone," Rosie Read says. The attorney has focused heavily on immigration law in Jackson for the past seven years at Trefonas Law. "We have a shortage of people who are willing to perform harder work, more uncomfortable manual labor in the United States, and that gap is often filled by immigrant labor. There is clearly a need—as well as a will on the other side from the employees to come take those jobs."
Problems arise for a variety of reasons, including less-than-scrupulous middle agents—government-sanctioned companies acting as recruiters—that sometimes misrepresent or mistreat foreigners. Federal bureaucracy, red tape and political tugs-of-war have also created a system rife with abuse and exploitation. When workers dare complain, they can be threatened with deportation. They are often too scared to seek help. They don't know their rights. Neither, it seems, does anyone else.
Since 2009, lawsuits involving H-2B visa regulations have turned the program into a political football. Crafted for employers by big-money lobbying groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, ImmigrationWorks USA and the National Restaurant Association, H-2Bs were once a cheap and easy way for hoteliers to hire summer housekeepers. Then, a lawsuit. Then, an injunction. Another lawsuit. And a resulting enjoining.
Immigration policy becomes campaign fodder while the feds have trouble getting out of their own way. The result of constant litigation and congressional appropriation riders has left agencies like the departments of Labor and Homeland Security wondering which one has the authority to do what, and with what money.
"You are up against a big messy bureaucracy," Read says. "The H-2B regulations, in particular, are a mess. Employers aren't happy overall with how the program is run. And from the employees' perspective, I think some protections need to be implemented. Because when things don't go well for them here, they are trapped. It needs reform from both ends."
Reform is reportedly on the way, but word is always slow to reach Wyoming. When Read took a case pro-bono last summer to represent six workers from Jamaica unhappy with their gig at Snake River Lodge, she ran headfirst into the machine. It took days just to find the right phone number. After a runaround in an automated phone system at the Wyoming State Capitol, Read finally found the right person, only to be told there was nothing he could do.
"We were trying to find this one guy. There is one guy in the state of Wyoming who is responsible for taking these complaints, and when we finally found him, he told me he didn't think he had the authority to investigate visa cases because 'the program was on hold,'" Read says. "I felt quite helpless. It's sort of a grim picture as far as what recourse an unhappy temporary worker has in the U.S. during the time they are here. I told the Jamaicans they should just go home and start over with a new employer."
Read eventually convinced someone in Cheyenne to take her complaint. It was filed. She hasn't heard a thing since. The Jamaicans are long gone.
As Read found, protections for foreign workers are few, while finding justice for them is seemingly impossible.
According to nationally recognized journalist-turned-researcher Jerry Kammer, "The State Department has done a horrible job of protecting these people. They are supposed to look after the interests of these people, but [the workers] are often ripped off and abused."
Daniel Costa is director of Immigration Law and Policy Research at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). He says loopholes in immigration law continue to allow employers to exploit migrant workers. It's an indentured servant program, he says, that borders on serfdom. "Employers don't need guest workers to fill labor shortages, but they hire them because guest workers become instantly deportable when fired and aren't protected from retaliation or allowed to switch jobs if they have an abusive employer," Costa says.
Time is not on the side of foreign workers, either. Most are in the states for less than six months. Even if a case were looked into, the investigation would take longer than the visa term. Monetary judgment, if any, would include back pay that probably wouldn't cover airfare back home, Read says.
"Sometimes the only recourse these people have, the only justice they are going to receive, is when newspapers like yours make it a story," says Mike Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) based in Washington, D.C. "Employers can do pretty much anything they want to [foreign workers] because there are no parents here to complain—whereas, if they are stacking American kids 14 to a room, they wouldn't be able to get away with it. It all comes down to the same thing: Employers import people they can control and pay less."
A LOT of Finger-pointing
Back to Oksana. She and her fellow countrymen were brought to the United States by a recruiting agency called American Connection, run by Lynda Vaz-Smith. When workers lodged complaints about the number of hours they were assigned to work, their subpar housing situations, unreliable transportation and a workplace environment filled with systematic abuse, the employer blamed Vaz-Smith. She, in turn, claimed the hotel was at fault.
There are an estimated 18 licensed recruiting agencies like the one Vaz-Smith owns in the United States. They're authorized by the federal government to match employers with employees. They receive fees from the employee, often in addition to recouping airfare and other expenditures they make on behalf of visa seekers. Their role is as a sponsor but, according to some, it comes dangerously close to worker exploitation.
"The government is not really all that strict in who they allow to do this kind of work," Krikorian says. "The standards are pretty low in the approval process required to be a recruiter or middleman, and there is almost no follow-up unless you really screw up and the story gets in the news. Congress has allowed these programs to mushroom to such a degree; there is no bureaucratic structure to keep track of them. It's basically on the honor system."
Read says she's familiar with numerous problems with recruiting agencies. "[For instance], the employee is not supposed to have to pay basically anything in order to come here with an H-2B visa. But you'll see the recruitment agencies charging them some prohibitive fees," she says. "I've certainly heard of recruitment agencies doing this."
Kenneth Goehring worked as a subcontractor for Vaz-Smith in 2014, the season Oksana and others had their trouble. He remembers that summer as a "nightmare." Furthermore, Goehring claims Vaz-Smith was unethical and unreliable and still owes him money.
Keith Gingery with the Teton County Attorney's Office says he's been looking for Vaz-Smith since October 2015. When the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services found that Goehring was owed $1,122 in unpaid wages, Gingery was able to track her down through American Connection in Chicago. "At first, she tried to claim Ken didn't technically work for her," Gingery recalls. "Then, she said she was putting a check in the mail. You know how that goes. I haven't heard anything since."
By August 2014, the hotel contracting with Vaz-Smith for guest workers allegedly had it. According to local attorney Traci Mears, the hotel's HR director severed ties with the agency after 11 of their workers retained a lawyer. Mears took the case on behalf of the foreign contingent. "They were not being paid what they were promised. The hours far exceeded what is allowed under U.S. law and Wyoming state law," Mears says. "When I did the calculations, they were making less than $4 an hour. Plus they were being charged $150 a week for housing and $80 a month for transportation. They had no money and no time off."
Goehring agreed, saying, "These kids were treated like crap."
Middle agencies effectively create a layer of protection for employers. When jobs, hours or housing aren't what was promised, both parties blame the other.
Mears says her issue was with the hotels. "I am really frustrated with the powers-that-be there. They signed the employment contract along with the agency. But all I got was finger pointing."
Oksana ended up quitting and going to work somewhere else. She says she liked Jackson Hole and met some really good friends. "It was bad situation. But I know that is not what America is like," she says. "I still remember beautiful mountains."
Vaz-Smith keeps residences in Wisconsin, Maryland, Maine and Connecticut. Attempts to reach her have been unsuccessful.
The guest-worker program is tailor-made for places like Jackson Hole. The average income of residents is nearly $300,000 a year, making Teton County one of the richest counties in the United States. It's a place of the "haves" and the "will nots." Those with the means to have their every whim catered to share space with a middle class feeling too entitled to take unskilled work. That leaves bottom-feeder peons to hang sheetrock, fold sheets and mow lawns. That labor pool is stretched thin with 70-hour workweeks pieced together with multiple jobs requiring laborers to hustle between bedroom communities in Teton and Star valleys.
Enter Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina and Russia—to the rescue.
But are foreign workers actually taking jobs from locals? And do they keep wages artificially low? Sara Saulcy, a staff economist with the Wyoming Department of Employment Research & Planning says, "The argument that foreign workers are employed in jobs domestic workers do not want may have credence, given that most foreign workers are employed in low-paying jobs."
But immigrant-advocate Krikorian counters. "If the supply of foreign workers were to dry up, employers would respond to this new, tighter labor market in two ways: One, they would offer higher wages, increased benefits and improved working conditions. At the same time, employers would look for ways to eliminate some of the jobs they are now having trouble filling. The result would be a new equilibrium, with blue-collar workers making somewhat better money, but each one of those workers being more productive," he says. It's a valid argument in the real world. But this is Teton County.
"I've got ads in the paper right now. I don't care what you pay. No one is walking through the door," says Stephen Price, general manager of Spring Creek Ranch. "We are not taking any jobs from people, and these are good paying jobs."
Every Jackson Hole-area employer contacted by this reporter says it paid guest workers the same rate it pays locals. Albertsons, Four Seasons, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and others all claimed pay rate was not a determining factor in choosing to go out-of-country for employees. They simply couldn't fill the jobs from classified ads. All denied, as well, that temporary visas were taking jobs away from Americans.
Krikorian disagrees, insisting, "The effects on American younger workers are significant. It allows employers to pay less, but that's not the only advantage. Employers lock in the workers early in the season. They've filled their staffing needs so early that when American kids look for these summer jobs on college break, the jobs are gone."
Economic Policy Institute's Costa says data supports the notion that foreign workers drive down wages. From 2007 to 2014, statistics from the American Community Survey show little to no wage increase in several select entry-level occupations.
"Low and stagnant wages are not the result of benign, abstract economic forces," Costa says. "They reflect conscious policy choices by lawmakers influenced by powerful corporate lobby groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association."
The system builds in inherent fraud. For instance, Jackson's resort hotels justifying their use of temporary work visas because of the town's seasonal ebb and flow of tourists is questionable. U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services found an example of a local hotel that successfully petitioned the Department of Labor for 118 workers on H-2B visas from December 2007 to April 2008. That spring, the same hotel asked for another 118 workers from May to the end of October, effectively providing the resort with year-round "seasonal" coverage.
Boarding worker bees
Newport Hotel Group owns some of the most exclusive lodging facilities in the country, including the Snake River Lodge & Spa. But one holding you'll never see them advertise is the Cache Creek Lodge in north Jackson. The motel was ranked dead last in TripAdvisor's 41 lodging listings in Jackson before it was sold to Newport last year. It's now used solely to house Snake River Lodge's immigrant workers.
Attorney Read defended a group of Jamaican workers hired to work at the Snake River Lodge. The workers told Read their rent was deducted directly from their paychecks. When the Jamaicans wanted to move out, they claim they were told by resort managers if they left the company accommodations, they would be fired.
Read ran down a list of alleged complaints in that case: "They were supposed to provide a certain number of hours, and these employees weren't getting enough hours. They are not supposed to be retaliated against if they complain about unsatisfactory working conditions. When one went in to complain, she was sent home for the day. That's docking wages. The rent was more expensive than they were originally told it was going to be," she says. "They were also told they were going to be taken to Idaho Falls to get their Social Security cards. They kept being put off."
Calls to Scott Alemany, Newport Hotel Group's director of operations, were never returned on this story.
Housing has always been a struggle for bosses. Spring Creek caught some flak in summer 2015 for boarding a few eastern Europeans in a rundown trailer. General manager Price says the tight housing market caught him by surprise. "[During the recession], we cut back on the number of apartments we had. Then, all of the sudden, everything hit," he says. The resort is currently building dormitory-style housing onsite. The project should be ready by May and will house 30 employees.
In years past, Four Seasons has bought out the Teton Gables Motel to house their temporary visa workers. Resort spokeswoman Nina Braga says housing continues to be a difficult aspect of the program but added, "We work with them. We have some local opportunities offsite and limited housing on property."
Bracero de nuevo
Price says Spring Creek has migrated toward J-1 visas rather than H-2Bs. The latter has become unpopular with most local employers for a number of reasons: They are harder to get. The total number issued in the country is capped at 66,000 a year. They are also becoming increasingly more expensive, putting employers on the hook for the cost of getting employees to the United States. And they require proof that an employer could not fill its needs locally.
Brian Clark, state monitor advocate for the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, says H-2B use has tapered off in recent years due to "the need for new regulations from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor." He added that the slack appears to have been taken up with increased use of J-1s.
J-1 visas are similar to H-2Bs with two major distinctions: They are designed for college students from other countries to expand their education with training in the field while in America. But these summer break "internships" usually amount to little more than learning how to operate a conveyor dishwasher. There is also a cultural exchange component, which is largely ignored by both superiors and subordinates.
"The idea that this is a cultural exchange program is completely bogus. It merely justifies a way to avoid hiring Americans," journalist/researcher Kammer says. "Our government has set up a system where employers don't even need to try to find domestic help," he says. "It provides the recruitment process for the employer so they don't even have to get into that, and to sweeten the deal, there are incentives to hire foreign workers because they don't have to pay the taxes that they would on full-time workers. It's a $150 million industry American employers have become addicted to."
Mary Erickson—who heads Jackson Hole's Community Resource Center, where foreigners regularly show up for assistance—says the system creates a burden on social services. "The J-1 is supposed to be an educational exchange, but I don't see that happening. It's really just labor," Erickson says. "I believe in the goodness of people, but some of these employers and middlemen have been continuously stretching the rules as much as they can. And what ends up happening is these workers come to us, and it's a strain on our services. We are really not set up to take care of transients. We are intended to take care of long-term members of the community."
Jackson Hole's Good Samaritan Mission has been inundated lately with bewildered Puerto Ricans who claim they were promised jobs at the Four Seasons. When they arrived in Jackson, the jobs mysteriously vanished.
"We have five or six staying with us," says the Mission's Brad Christensen. "They said they were recruited by a company called MMI and promised jobs at the Four Seasons, then abandoned when they got here. They weren't happy."
Christensen says he's contacted Access for Justice who says they are interested in taking up a case for the misplaced migrants.
Four Seasons spokesperson Braga says the hotel has not hired anyone directly from Puerto Rico but acknowledged they do sometimes work with a third-party contractor called The Service Companies, an outsourcing company that allegedly acquired MMI in 2014.
The Service Companies' corporate director of human resources, Nikki Bernal, explains how her firm works and says she wanted a chance to set the record straight. "MMI is not a temporary staffing agency; we are an outsourcing company working directly with the Puerto Rican government," she says. She adds that MMI hires its own employees after a background check and drug testing. Employees are then assigned to property locations throughout the United States.
"We only recruit in areas where it is difficult to find employees. The labor pool in Jackson Hole, as you know, is very limited," Bernal says. "There is nobody who comes to Jackson through us without a job, and our intention is certainly not to burden the city of Jackson or the state of Wyoming with our workers."
Bernal says that MMI pays airfare for each employee to Jackson. Workers are housed each with their own room and paid $10 an hour to start. They are prepared for conditions in Wyoming; MMI even purchases winter clothing for them.
"We had a property in Jackson that closed for a month," she says. "We were able to keep eight of our employees there deep cleaning. I moved 12 others to another hotel we service in Jackson Hole. Seven others were moved to Colorado to work a hotel there and some went back home for a while."
Bernal admits some employees choose to leave her employment after they arrive. They sometimes find better-paying jobs. Once their employment with MMI is terminated, they must surrender housing within 48 hours, but Bernal says she understands the hardship of finding housing and has often let employees stay as long as two weeks until they can find something else.
Erickson with the Community Resource Center says hiring Puerto Ricans is a new trend she is seeing at the Four Seasons and Hotel Terra. These laborers are technically U.S. citizens who do not need a visa to enter the country. "Their economy is in the toilet. They are coming to the states in droves," Erickson says. "They don't have to go through the whole visa process—all they have to do is just get here. The problem is some are promised jobs and housing, and some aren't. They are completely unprepared. They show up here without winter coats or boots."
The North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) reports Puerto Rico is second only to Mexico as a source of cheap imported labor for the United States. Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data found 84,000 people left Puerto Rico for the U.S. mainland in 2011. NACLA estimates that annually, that number could be closer to 200,000.
"Puerto Rico's nearly decade-long economic recession has led to people leaving the island for the mainland in numbers not seen in more than 50 years," the Pew report states. There were 1,026 Puerto Ricans documented living in Wyoming according to the 2010 Census.
The effect of guest-worker programs in Jackson Hole is a hand-worked "devil's bargain," says Hal Rothman, in his book of the same title. In it, Rothman portrays luxury resort towns like Jackson as modified tourist communities. A place where "neo-natives, attracted to the original traits of a transformed place, have moved in and created a community very different from the one established by locals who came before them."
A few years ago, the Jackson Hole News & Guide polled citizens for a new slogan for the sign at the top of the pass above Jackson Hole, since the sign currently there—"Yonder Lies the Last of the Old West"—was beginning to show its wear. The paper jokingly suggested a replacement: "Jackson Hole, where California plays, and Mexico works."
According to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort's human resource director, Nicola James, the resort employs about 52 foreign workers this winter on J-1 visas. It will hire about the same number of foreign workers this summer. In past years, JHMR has employed more than 250 international workers at any given time. James says the resort gave up on H-2Bs back in 2007. JHMR has an in-house recruiter who regularly visits countries like Argentina. She works with a middle agency called Universal Student Exchange.
Albertsons typically hires around 80 foreign temps a year. Xanterra, concessionaire for Yellowstone Park, typically hire 1,000 or more guest workers. Other valley businesses using international laborers include restaurants, smaller hotels, construction firms, lawn care companies and dude ranches.
The result? Many employers and employees alike are happy with visa programs. They infuse Jackson Hole's crunch seasons with grateful workers who create little overhead. They have, however, arguably created a fabricated faux Jackson Hole. An ersatz community of those doing the hard work and those being waited upon.
And Oksana, for one, is never coming back. CW
Jake Nichols is a contributing writer at Planet Jackson Hole, where this story originally appeared.