By Robert Tann, Summit Daily (AP Storyshare)
After flying 5,000 miles from his home country, Rodrigo Queiroz was excited for his second season working at Keystone Resort when he arrived in late November.
During the 2021-2022 ski season, Queiroz said he saved about $8,000 while working at the Timber Ridge Lodge restaurant in Keystone — money he was able to bring back to his home country of Brazil. But as the 24-year-old looks to the end of his temporary employment with the resort this time around, Queiroz expects that his savings from months of work will “be nothing.”
Queiroz is among several employees of Keystone’s parent company, Vail Resorts, who said they’ve faced challenges securing hours after traveling to work in the United States on a temporary student visa — known as a J-1 — for the 2022-2023 ski season. Students say it’s led to financial burdens as they contend with a high cost of living in Summit County that includes their housing, groceries and transportation.
“It’s been a tough season,” Queiroz said. “We came so far away to work, and we’ve been treated so disrespectfully.”
J-1 students, including Queiroz, told the Summit Daily News that they’ve seen their weekly hours rapidly decline in recent weeks, with one employee scheduled for as little as six hours of work during the week of Jan. 28 to Feb. 3. Some said they feel misled based on the job information they were given before accepting their positions.
In an email response to multiple questions from the Summit Daily, Vail Resorts spokesperson Max Winter stated, “We care deeply about all of our employees — including J-1 students, and we are investing more into our employees this season than ever before.
“With a fully staffed team this year, we recognize that more team members may be seeing variations in their scheduled hours at certain times,” Winter continued, adding, “while it is typical to see a fluctuation of hours in any season, we understand that some employees are frustrated, and we are taking that seriously.”
‘You basically have to pay to work’
When he began working as a back-of-house employee at the Timber Ridge restaurant in December, Queiroz said he was scheduled for 40-hour weeks, but by the middle of the month his hours began to get cut to 32. Then, he hit 24 hours in January.
Copies of Queiroz’s work schedules, which he provided to the Summit Daily, show that for every week since Jan. 28, Queiroz was scheduled for two days — or 16 hours — not including an unpaid break. He said it’s barely enough money to cover his living expenses.
“The money that you get is only to survive,” Queiroz said, “not even that.”
Queiroz said the hours he’s received are far less than what he expected, according to a written job offer that Queiroz provided to the Summit Daily.
The document states that his job title, listed as “food service worker,” has an average of 32 hours per week and five days of work per week. The job offer, which required a signature from Queiroz, signified an agreement between him and the employer, which was listed as “Vail Resorts” on the final page of the document.
Winter, in an email, stated Vail Resorts “does not have employee contracts” with a “guarantee of any certain number of hours.” In a subsequent email, Winter stated the document Queiroz provided “is an offer letter provided to a J-1 student from their sponsor” but added, “it is an authorized offer letter.”
“At Keystone, the average number of hours per week worked for J-1 students this season is consistent with the targeted average,” Winter stated without providing specifics.
Queiroz said at 16 hours per week, he’s receiving far below what he feels is acceptable.
At $20 per hour, Queiroz said he is making about $680 per paycheck. After spending $380 each month on his subsidized employee housing as well as paying for groceries and transportation, Queiroz said he is sometimes left with as little as $20 from his paycheck. He said he’s been looking for a side job to help support him until he returns to Brazil after his employment ends on March 15 — a trip he expects to make with mostly empty pockets.
For Queiroz, the experience has been made even more frustrating given the financial investment he said he made to come to Colorado. Totaling the costs for his J-1 visa application and flight to Denver, which is not covered by the employer, Queiroz estimates he spent about $20,000 in Brazilian currency — nearly $3,900 in U.S. dollars. He still has to pay for his flight home in March.
“You basically have to pay to work,” Queiroz said, adding last season he was at least able to make up the difference — and even build a savings.
‘We don’t have space’
It’s been a similar situation for Andressa Lima, also a 24-year-old J-1 student from Brazil who said she came to work in Keystone to “live the experience of a lifetime.”
Lima said she interviewed in October for a housekeeping job which she was set to begin in early December. But on Nov. 30, Vail Resorts staff told her by email that she’d need to take a different job. In a Dec. 3 email to Lima, which she provided to the Summit Daily, a Vail Resorts recruiter offered her a front-of-house position serving food and drinks at Timber Ridge — a job the recruiter said “will allow you to have a better experience at Keystone Resort and allow you to get more hours.”
Like Queiroz, Lima said she expected at least 32 hours each week based on what was in her job offer. Since working at the restaurant, she’s had closer to 24 hours — not including unpaid breaks. For the past two weeks, it was 16 hours — then 12, respectively, according to copies of Lima’s schedule that she provided to the Summit Daily.
“It’s very difficult because Keystone is very expensive to live,” Lima said. “I need to pay for housing. I need to pay for everything here.”
Lima said when she arrived in Keystone on Dec. 6, she went a week without work after she did not hear back from her manager. She also needed to find housing after Vail Resorts told her in an email in mid-November that there was no employee housing available. Lima said she’d been on a housing waitlist since October.
“They told me, ‘We don’t have space. We don’t have beds. We don’t have housing,’” Lima said.
Without working her first week, Lima said she paid about $400 to stay in a hostel in Silverthorne. She said she eventually found another place to live temporarily before she was approved to live in employee housing in the Sagebrush apartments in Keystone in February.
According to the job offer provided by Queiroz, the employer, listed as Vail Resorts, “provides limited housing” with one to four people per room at a cost $350 to $600 per month as well as a $300 housing deposit. The document did not expand on how much housing was available and a space titled “brief description of housing” was blank.
According to Winter, “J-1 students are required to secure their own housing and affirm via their sponsor agency that they have housing before arriving.” Winter added that Summit County has “the largest employee bed base across our company with nearly 2,000 beds in a variety of different unit types available” but did not provide a response to questions about how many employees, including J-1 students, it had hired this season.
Though her housing has somewhat stabilized, Lima said the initial weeks were chaotic and stressful. Accounting for her J-1 visa and flight to Colorado, Lima estimates she paid about $5,000 to work this ski season. With fewer hours than she hoped for, Lima said she’s “paid a lot of money to survive.”
Issues ‘have been going on for years’
Miguel Angel Martinez Espinola, a 26-year-old from Paraguay currently working at Keystone’s Summit House restaurant, said he paid about $3,500 to work as a J-1 student this season.
While Espinola said he began with 40-hour weeks in early December, his hours have since decreased. For the last week of January and beginning of February, Espinola was scheduled for six hours, the lowest he’s had, according to a copy of his schedule. His first paycheck in February was less than $500, he said.
Espinola said complaints from J-1 students have been raised with Keystone managers, with at least three meetings that have been held between staff members and managers of which he’s aware. But he said it’s felt like he and other employees have been given two options: apply to transfer to another resort or go back home.
“That option is not really an option,” Espinola said of the latter. “For a flight ticket we need to pay, and we don’t have money.”
While he’s frustrated, Espinola said he doesn’t blame his direct managers.
“I know that it’s not our managers’ problem. It’s Vail Resorts’ problem,” he said.
Winter stated Vail Resorts has offered solutions to J-1 employees that “many have opted for.”
Those include “moving to work at another Vail Resorts property, shifting to work in another department at Keystone, taking full-time or part-time work offers at other businesses in town,” Winter stated.
But Yirka Platt, a board member for the Summit County-based immigrant advocacy group Mountain Dreamers, said she feels the treatment of J-1 students has been unacceptable.
“Exploitation is the word to express what these kids are going through,” Platt said, adding that she feels companies see J-1 visa holders as “cheap labor.”
Having worked two seasons as a J-1 student for Vail Resorts between 2008 and 2010, Platt said the issues raised by current employees “have been going on for years.”
Platt said she faced the same problems: low hours that translated to low pay and a struggle with housing stability. At one point she claimed she was working three jobs to sustain herself and living with 10 other J-1 employees in a two-bedroom, one-bath home in Dillon. The realities that face international workers is far from what many are led to believe, Platt said.
“One thing that I find really unfair is when employers hire these young kids, they’re putting this picture that everything is a wonderful, perfect, wonderland … the American dream,” Platt said. “But we see that immigrants continue to suffer in one way or another regardless of their legal status.”
Platt believes companies like Vail Resorts should be more transparent about work hours, available housing and the cost of living when advertising to international workers — especially as the county grapples with those same issues for its own longterm residents.
In an email, Keystone Resort Vice President Chris Sorensen stated the company is “working hard to provide a positive experience for all of our team members and to make sure they are supported and cared for in every way we can.”
But Queiroz said he feels differently.
“It’s not been an ‘epic’ experience, as Vail says,” Queiroz said. “It’s been a nightmare.”