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Work visa crisis crippling Vail Valley landscaping, construction firms

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June 18, 2019, 9:21 am

Editor’s note: A version of this story first appeared in Colorado Politics:

VAIL — For nearly 20 years, Glen Ellison of Ceres Landcare and Ceres+ Landscape Architecture in Eagle sponsored a core group of 35 landscapers, many from one town in Mexico, to create some of the most spectacular lawns surrounding the high-end homes of the Vail Valley. His company survived the worst of the great recession, ready to ride the economic recovery wave.

Glen Ellison

Then last year at this time, as the snow was melting off the surrounding mountains and trophy home owners from Beaver Creek to Cordillera were calling for elaborate gardens, terraced patios and intricate water features, Ellison found out that none of his temporary workers under the federal H-2B visa system would be allowed to return. He had not demonstrated a great enough need. And this year a new lottery system again torpedoed his longstanding H-2B workforce.

A resilient businessman who started out in 1981 with a wheelbarrow, pick, rake and a shovel in a Toyota pickup truck, Ellison didn’t despair. He told his workers – many of whom he’s visited in their homes in Aguascalientes, meeting children, spouses and parents – that he would do everything he could to restore their H-2B (temporary, non-agricultural) work visas so they could come back to Colorado.

After visiting Washington, D.C. to meet with members of the state’s congressional delegation and other seasonal employment advocacy organizations earlier this year, Ellison thinks he may never see some of his workers again in the Vail Valley – hardworking men he’s come to think of more as family than employees. And, in his opinion, vital contributors to the local economy.

Now Ellison is in desperation mode, trying recruiting tactics like setting up a table with brochures and a banner in the Tucson suburb of Vail, Arizona, looking for green-card holders who may be looking to switch jobs. Mostly he was met with similar desperation along the border, and he wonders if some of those poor souls who applied are still among the living.

And forget about finding naturalized American citizens to do the backbreaking outdoor work required in landscaping, Ellison said. Maybe in the 80s when he first moved to town, but now there are no more ski bums and college-aged young men willing to toil in all conditions under the Colorado sun.

“For the most part, we, as Americans, have grown soft. We don’t like to go out there and work like that,” Ellison said. “The idea behind work today is using enhancers and get to the fitness center. But the idea of putting callouses on your fingers and doing a hard day’s worth of work, not just today but tomorrow and next week and next month, man, that’s something from the past.

“But the people down in Mexico, they’d love it and it works for them.”

In Eagle County, unemployment levels are considerably lower than the national average of around 4%, which is considered full employment. The county that surrounds Vail and Beaver Creek has an unemployment rate lower than 2%, and as of April there were 1,600 open jobs.

“What impact does that low unemployment level and the inability to bring employees into businesses have on our business growth and on our economic development as a community?” asks Vail Valley Partnership President and CEO Chris Romer, adding that a recent workforce study by the chamber found that 75% of local businesses want to grow but are having a hard time doing so and over 60% of businesses have open positions but can’t fill the jobs.

Ellison doesn’t want to divulge exact numbers but says his company could have grown sales substantially over the last couple of landscaping seasons – growth that would have benefited the entire community. “If we would’ve been able to find employees to go out there to work, it would have had a trickle effect; we would have been able to buy more from our suppliers, buy more vehicles,” Ellison said. “We [could be] stimulating the economy, but we can’t. So what we have is a wonderful management core and a wonderful reputation but we don’t have people to get the work done.”

Editor’s note: To read the full story go to Colorado Politics.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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