GATLINBURG, Tenn.—Jerry Huskey, a senior staff member at Ober Gatlinburg, spent his summer struggling to hire enough staff to operate its amusement park and he is dreading the same challenge as the winter ski season approaches.
Lockdowns and travel restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic created one set of hiring hurdles this year; Washington created others. In June, President Trump banned several work-based visa types through the end of the year, including the J-1 and H-2B programs for seasonal foreign workers, with the aim of safeguarding any open jobs for Americans.
Recruiting those U.S. workers, however, proved difficult this summer because the seasonal jobs aren’t permanent, affordable housing is hard to find, and, in some locations, there simply aren’t enough workers available, business leaders say.
The enhanced unemployment benefits approved by Congress and the White House this summer also meant American workers could make more money staying at home rather than taking a temporary job.
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On a July afternoon in Gatlinburg, a parade of cars with out-of-state license plates inched along Parkway, the city’s busy commercial strip. Yet with a total population of just 4,000 residents, Ober Gatlinburg and other businesses couldn’t fill all the jobs needed during the bustling summer. One restaurant that was closed in early July left a note on its door citing staffing issues, while others staked “Always Hiring” signs out front. The amusement park operated with reduced hours, and couldn’t open all of its venues, Mr. Huskey said.
Ober Gatlinburg started hiring J-1 workers in 1995, when the business brought in about 15 foreign employees. That number has swelled to as many as 120 in the summer and more than 150 during most winter months. Along the way, Ober Gatlinburg created housing for its temporary staff. This year, though, Mr. Huskey could obtain only 25 J-1-visa workers for the summer. As for the looming winter season, the business hasn’t lined up any foreign workers yet.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Mr. Huskey, who previously ran human resources and now serves as Ober Gatlinburg’s risk manager. “We depend heavily on winter—it’s the only time when we’re the only game in town.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, along with several other employers and organizations, have filed legal challenges to Mr. Trump’s visa ban, arguing that the president issued the order without evidence that foreign workers actually displace Americans, and that he doesn’t hold the power to single-handedly erase entire visa categories.
A federal court in Washington on Friday night partially upheld the ban, including on J-1 and H-2B workers, though a different court is set to reach a preliminary decision in a separate suit against the ban within a few weeks.
“Many J-1 employers in winter resort towns are scared about how the current visa restrictions will impact their companies,” said John Baselice, executive director of immigration policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “These businesses will be left out in the cold.”
Critics of the foreign-worker programs are skeptical of businesses’ arguments.
The visa programs offer employers a lot of flexibility to expand or contract their workforces, and those businesses aren’t required to pay payroll taxes on those workers who arrive via J-1 visas, said David North, a fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization advocating more immigration restrictions. For many seasonal employers, hiring foreign workers is convenient, and cost-effective.
Many J-1 employers in winter resort towns are scared about how the current visa restrictions will impact their companies
“It’s so much easier to call up this middleman who has an in with a J-1 program, to get people in bunches and who are rights-free,” Mr. North said. “They always talk about labor shortages, and they never talk about wage shortages.”
He added: “If you’re going to run a business like this in the U.S., you ought to figure out how to recruit U.S. workers.”
Some ski lodges are trying to recruit college students who are learning remotely because of closed campuses by advertising seasonal jobs that will work around their videoconference schedule, said David Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs at the National Ski Areas Association.
About 30% of the industry’s revenue is generated between Dec. 10 and Jan. 7, Mr. Byrd said. Unless the Trump administration’s temporary ban on visas is reversed, many ski resorts will likely face staffing shortfalls that will cut into their business.
Lutsen Mountains, a ski resort in northern Minnesota, is scrambling to replace the roughly 50 H-2B visa workers it normally brings in to fill out its staff during the winter season, said Charles Skinner, who owns the facility along with Granite Peak in Wausau, Wis.
Because of its location near a metropolitan area, Granite Peak is able to find ample seasonal workers locally. Lutsen is a different story, Mr. Skinner said. There are just 5,000 residents in the entire county, which is as large as the state of Rhode Island, he said.
That population has been aging, too; the countywide high school now graduates less than 30 students a year. Most of the county sits on public lands, limiting housing development, he said.
Mr. Skinner said Lutsen has found some success persuading foreign workers who were already in the U.S. for summer jobs to head to northern Minnesota for the winter. But the resort is expecting to begin its season understaffed, limiting hours and seeking more help from full-time staff.
“What are the businesses in a place like ours supposed to do when we can’t find American workers to live far away from their families?” he said. “It’s just impossible.”
At Anakeesta, another amusement park in Gatlinburg, the workforce peaks at about 300 employees each summer, said Bob Bentz, Anakeesta’s managing partner and primary owner.
This year, when the park reopened on May 21, park owners could only find 200—and just three of their J-1 workers made it. So they had to reduce their hours, closing at 6 p.m. when they would have kept the park open until 9 p.m. or later.
“That’s had a direct impact on revenue,” Mr. Bentz said. “When you close earlier, there’s going to be a loss of revenue.”
Gatlinburg and its neighbors, Sevierville and Pigeon Forge—home to the Dollywood amusement park—have drawn more than 1,400 visa workers in years past. This year, though, the total is just 68, according to U.S. State Department data.
Sevier County, where Gatlinburg is located, had the lowest unemployment in the state before the pandemic disrupted business, at 2.5%. The county’s jobless rate rocketed to nearly 30% during the shutdown, highlighting the community’s dependence on tourism and recreation, before receding to 10% as those attractions and restaurants reopened, said Allen Newton, executive director of the Sevier County Economic Development Council.
The council has responded by developing a hospitality internship program that seeks to bring more U.S. college-age workers to the area, Mr. Newton said. The inaugural class of 12 started their jobs this week, he said. “We’ve tried to get creative,” he said.
Write to Justin Baer at email@example.com and Michelle Hackman at Michelle.Hackman@wsj.com
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