Conflict in Ukraine affects Flathead Valley’s seasonal workforce

For seasonal cook and campground owner Nathan St. Goddard, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is hitting closer to home than expected.

St. Goddard is the owner and operator of Johnson’s of St. Mary, a campground, RV park, cabin rental site and restaurant located less than 0.5 miles from the entrance east of Glacier National Park. Normally, for St. Goddard, summer means hiring a full swath of workers to keep up with Glacier’s busy season, as thousands of guests and camp diners pass through its doors. But this season, the lack of J-1 visas has left Johnson’s of St. Mary understaffed, forcing St. Goddard to scale back normal operations.

“It was tough,” St. Goddard said. “We have limited our menu. We have increased our prices. You have to do it at all levels.

Many of those absent workers, the campsite owner said, usually come from conflict-ridden Russia and Ukraine.

J-1 visa recipients have long supported Northwest Montana’s tourist economy. International exchange workers often come to the Flathead Valley to work as cooks, servers, housekeepers, and support staff at businesses in and around Glacier. The program is designed to allow workers to experience American life and culture while working in short-term, often seasonal positions.

Montana welcomed 2,652 D-1 workers in 2018 and 2,844 in 2019, the majority of whom came through summer travel programs and high school student programs.

J-1 visa worker Alec James at Whitefish Mountain Resort on June 24, 2022. Sarah Mosquera | flathead beacon

In June 2020, President Trump halted the issuance of work visas in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, reducing the number of J-1 workers in Montana to 206. Despite increased vaccinations and the lifting of Domestic restrictions in 2021, backlogs at US consulates and travel bans for foreigners have kept J-1 visas at low levels. Montana was able to employ 1,159 J-1 incumbents in 2021, a more promising number than the previous year, but still well below typical numbers.

Things were looking up this summer for companies like St. Goddard’s, which hoped to replenish their staff of J-1 workers as COVID-induced backlogs dissipated and travel bans fell. Johnson’s of St. Mary typically employs a handful of J-1 workers as cooks and dishwashers in its restaurant.

Yet the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some 5,250 miles from the Flathead, would soon put a damper on Johnson of St. Mary’s summer operations.

On May 2, the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), an American non-profit organization that organizes international exchange programs, sent an e-mail to St. Goddard to inform it that summer workers D-1 that he expected to join his restaurant would no longer come.

“This year has brought unforeseen hiring challenges, including the ongoing pandemic and the growing crisis between Ukraine and Russia. Overall, program-wide attendance is lower than what we anticipated when we began planning in the fall,” the email states. “Having said that, we share the unfortunate news that we will not be able to fill your positions for the upcoming 2022 summer season.”

As of 2016, all Johnson’s of St. Mary’s J-1 workers come from Russia and Ukraine. Although the restaurant and campground only expect four J-1 workers this summer, the workers’ absence has forced the small business to scale back operations. St. Goddard has limited its menu and closed the restaurant one day a week.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever go back to what it was in 2019,” he said.

St. Goddard tried to recruit employees from the Blackfeet reservation, where the restaurant and campground are located, but the expensive commute to Browning in the wake of rising gas prices made it difficult to find new ones. recruits.

Whitefish Mountain Resort, one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Flathead Valley, has also lost potential J-1 workers to the conflict in Ukraine. Like Johnson’s of St. Mary, WMR hires J-1 employees through CIEE’s international exchange program. Of the 32 international students who were to work in the mountains this summer, only 25 finally arrived. Several Russian students have been unable to obtain visas, which WMR public relations officer Chad Sokol says may be due to the war.

Fortunately, the mountain was able to supplement the lost Russian workers with other employees. Most of the summer squad of around 125 people have been filled, a promising sign for this season. At this time last year, WMR had filled only about 65% of its summer positions, largely due to national labor shortages, J-1 backlogs and housing issues. and childcare.

“We’re not facing the same kind of jostling or shortage of manpower that we faced last summer,” Sokol said. “We are doing very well in terms of recruiting.

WMR’s size helped insulate it from the impact of the loss of Russian workers. Unlike many smaller businesses in Flathead, WMR is able to offer employee benefits such as lift pass privileges, discounted activity passes and on-site housing to help attract seasonal workers.

Cheri Hoff, co-owner of the Glacier Highland Motel in West Glacier, said a few Ukrainian and Russian J-1 students applied to work at her motel for the summer but eventually disappeared from the application process. She doesn’t know if this was due specifically to the war, but she is grateful to have found enough workers elsewhere. Hoff was able to fill his housekeeping and support staff vacancies with other J-1 students, primarily from Mongolia and Turkey.

The loss of Russian and Ukrainian J-1 workers has only compounded the many forces weighing on local businesses. Northwestern Montana has felt the effects of nationwide labor shortages in recent weeks and months, largely due to a lack of affordable housing and child care options. adequate.

Flathead restaurants, campgrounds and lodges have reported facing severe staffing shortages at the Beacon. Business owners described cutting hours of operation, building staff housing to attract new employees, hiring family and friends to fill vacancies and even taking on burden of housekeeping work themselves. Many are still looking for seasonal workers to fill vacancies.

While St. Goddard says he’s adjusted to a smaller staff, he’s hoping he can find employees to fill in the missing J-1s, who he calls the “hardest workers ever.” If it can’t find new workers, Johnson’s of St. Mary, like many businesses in the area, could be operating below normal levels for the third straight summer.

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