Concern over workers fired at the Killington Resort this week has prompted Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., to ask for a government investigation.
Sanders said Tuesday he asked the U.S. Department of Labor to look into the layoffs of as many as 90 workers. Sanders said his concern is that Killington may look to replace some of those workers under the foreign guest worker visa program known as H-2B.
"I am writing to request that the Employment and Training Administration conduct an investigation to make sure that Powdr Corp., the new owner of the Killington and Pico Ski Resorts, and Killington Ltd. are in full compliance with all of the applicable laws and regulations pertaining to the H-2B visa program," Sanders said in his letter to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao.
Sanders continued that "employers applying for H-2B visas must first certify that capable U.S. workers are not available, efforts were made to recruit U.S. workers for these positions first, and the employment of alien workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers."
Killington implemented a major restructuring at the ski resort Monday, letting go many full-time, year-round employees.
The largest ski resort in the East declined comment on the number of layoffs, but workers who were given pink slips put the number between 30 and 90.
Killington employs at least 200 year-round workers and several thousand seasonal workers during the peak ski season.
Company officials said the layoffs were necessary for the financial health of the resort and to make necessary capital investments in the future.
When told of Sanders' request for an investigation, Killington spokesman Dave Rathbun said Tuesday he was unaware of any discussions to replace fired workers with guest foreign workers.
Rathbun said the hiring of foreign workers to fill seasonal jobs is not unique to Killington.
"It's the same situation across the ski industry," said Rathbun, Killington's marketing director. "We have a difficult time finding qualified people from the labor pool available."
According to the Department of Labor, under former owner American Skiing Co., Killington was authorized to hire 180 foreign workers last year. The jobs included 85 ski tow operators, 47 housekeepers, 25 snowmakers, 15 athletic trainers and eight sports instructors. All jobs paid $8 an hour. It could not be immediately determined how many of those jobs were filled with foreign workers.
Sanders said in a telephone interview that it defies belief that there aren't qualified Vermonters to fill many of the positions that are allocated to foreign workers.
"I just have a hard time believing that in the state of Vermont there aren't people who are more than qualified to be snowboard or ski instructors," Sanders said. "I have a hard time believing that there aren't young people available to be snowmakers or to be ski tow operators."
He said the reason Killington and other employers have a difficult time finding U.S. workers to fill jobs is because they pay so little.
"If wages are very low, then for obvious reasons Americans are not going to do that work," he said. "But then the question is if you're bringing in foreign workers at artificially low wages you are circumventing the law."
Rathbun responded that Killington pays competitive wages and that most of the foreign workers are hired for service-related positions and not skilled positions.
"I can tell you our ski instructors are paid competitively," he said. "They also earn pay based on the types of lessons requested by guests."
He said Killington is willing to respond at any time to Sanders' concerns.
Sanders call for an investigation over the firings comes at the same time Congress is debating an immigration bill that contains an expansion of the foreign guest worker visa program. Sanders is opposed to the bill.
Killington and adjacent Pico were purchased last month by Powdr Corp. and SP land Co. for $85.2 million. The combined resorts now operate under the corporate name Killington/Pico Ski Resort Partners.