Ski resorts across BC desperate for staff as seasonal workers struggle to enter Canada

‘The ski industry relies so very heavily in normal times on international staff,’ says one resort.

Heavily reliant on seasonal workers from all over the world to stay afloat, staff shortages are one of the biggest concerns facing B.C. ski resorts right now. With the pandemic continuing to prove a roadblock for many trying to enter the country, resorts are now scrambling to find alternative solutions.

With winter fast approaching and the border open again to international visitors, some of the province’s ski resorts say they’re worried they won’t have enough staff to operate at full capacity this season, especially as ticket sales start to increase.

“It is the largest issue that we’re dealing with,” said Michael Ballingall, senior vice-president of the Kelowna-based Big White Ski Resort.

The resort needs 600 staff to keep their mountain running this winter, Ballingall said, and so far, they’ve only confirmed 230 employees.

”I say confirmed — they’ve accepted a job with us. But we don’t know if they’ve accepted a job somewhere else. It’s not until we ask them to report that we actually can breathe a sigh of relief,” he said.

Difficult for seasonal workers to enter

Ballingall said Big White normally experiences an influx in applications from seasonal workers during this time, but the pandemic is proving difficult in getting those people to Canada.

Pedro Pablo Iturrieta is one of those people. Before the pandemic struck, Iturrieta was working in a restaurant in Whistler, B.C., on a working holiday visa. But when public health restrictions closed down his only source of income, he was forced to head back home to Chile.

Now with a job offer in hand, he wants to return to the mountain resort town for this winter season. But he doesn’t know if it will be possible, because he doesn’t have two doses of a Canadian-approved vaccine.

“I’m not an anti-vaccine guy; the moment I could get it, I said, ‘Give me whatever,'” he explained.

Iturrieta said he has one dose of Pfizer and one dose of the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine. But the latter has not been approved by Health Canada so he wouldn’t be considered fully vaccinated here, forcing him to quarantine after entering the country.

On top of the added price of quarantine, flights from Chile to Vancouver are more expensive than pre-pandemic times, Iturrieta said.

“It’s a bit frustrating,” he said. “I want to go back because I have my work there, but it’s expensive for me.”

Sun Peaks Resort near Kamloops, B.C., is facing the same shortfall of seasonal workers, particularly in the hospitality sector, for things like housekeeping and food and beverage services, said Christina Antoniak, the resort’s director of communications.

“The ski industry relies so very heavily in normal times on international staff coming in to support our seasonal aspect of our business,” said Antoniak.

They are hopeful that more international workers will apply, she said, but for now, the resort has had to get creative by appealing to employees within Canada to help fill the gap before winter. The resort has expanded recruitment efforts in the local area, Antoniak said, finding some success by advertising locally and in other provinces.

Ballingall said he and others in the industry are asking the government to “cut the red tape” for many potential workers, who in some cases are just waiting for their visa applications to be accepted.

And with countries like Australia and New Zealand starting to allow flights into Canada again, Ballingall said he has hope more workers will come in and save the day.

“We haven’t hit the panic button just yet,” he said. “[But] labour is the biggest concern on our plate.”

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