SUNRIVER — When Sunriver Resort’s collection of nearly 500 seasonal workers began arriving at the resort in May, it included around 45 university students from Bulgaria, Slovenia, the Philippines and other countries.
Tom O’Shea, the resort’s managing director, said the workers receive housing in and around the resort, a bike to commute back and forth from work and a chance to make money working in and exploring a foreign country.
“Having traveled a lot myself, there is no better way to expand your life experience than to travel,” he said.
O’Shea came to Sunriver in 2008, when the resort had a program for international students to work over the summer. But with the economy headed into a downturn, O’Shea said the resort scaled back and didn’t renew the program in 2009.
“We wanted to focus on Central Oregon,” O’Shea said.
The resort began hiring internationally again in 2014, in response to an improving national economy that brought more travelers to the region. But the economic recovery came at a cost to large employers like Sunriver. As unemployment has dropped in Deschutes County, it has become more difficult for places like Sunriver to hire enough seasonal workers within the region.
“It’s not so much an advantage as it is a need,” O’Shea said of the international program.
Labor shortages occur at different rates of unemployment for different regions.
Damon Runberg, regional economist with the Oregon Employment Department, said Deschutes County typically experiences symptoms of a labor shortage when the county’s unemployment rate drops much below 6 percent. As of April, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for the county stood at 4.6 percent.
“I don’t see any end in sight,” Runberg said.
While Deschutes County, and Central Oregon more generally, have grown quickly in recent years, Runberg said the new arrivals have not impacted the labor pool as much as might be expected. He said around half of the residents who have relocated to Deschutes County since 2014 are 65 and older, so few of them enter the labor market. Between older residents and children under 16 who move to the county, a relatively small number of new residents would be able and willing to work.
“Really, we can consider not even half of the population in the labor force,” Runberg said.
Runberg said labor shortages force employers to either hire from outside the region or avoid adding workers. For Sunriver, which almost doubles its base staff of around 450 workers between Memorial Day and Labor Day to keep up with demand, not adding employees is less of an option.
Runberg, who collects help-wanted ads on a variety of platforms to gauge demand, said Sunriver had the third-highest number of ads of any employer in Deschutes County over the last month, behind St. Charles Medical Center and Bend-La Pine Schools.
“I’ve heard it’s been really hard in hospitality, in particular,” Runberg said.
As a result, Sunriver, like many large resorts, has looked outside the region for summer help. Several other large hospitality businesses in Central Oregon, including Mt. Bachelor and Black Butte Ranch, have used international workers who come to America on J-1 visas, a visa for students visiting the United States on exchange programs.
The J-1 visa program has come under fire in the past.
In 2012, foreign students employed at a Hershey chocolate plant in Pennsylvania walked out in protest of low pay and poor working conditions. The students won more than $200,000 in back pay, and the J-1 program was altered to include additional oversight.
According to the U.S. State Department’s website, 145 students came to Oregon on J-1 visas for summer work-related travel in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available.
“I don’t think there’s any question it’s increasing,” said Joe Stone, professor emeritus at the University of Oregon’s department of economics.
Stone, who specializes in labor and international economics, cited increased interest in exploring other countries and decreased travel costs as the primary reasons behind the uptick in work-related travel to America.
Agencies in Eastern European countries help resorts hire students by running job fairs in which students and employers participate, he added.
Molly Johnson, senior marketing manager for Sunriver, said recruiters for the resort bring along copies of Sunriver’s promotional video to attract workers.
“Just being able to go to some of the host countries and meet people face-to-face makes a big difference,” Johnson said.
O’Shea said many of the students work as housekeepers or in maintaining the golf courses, though some of the workers from the Philippines are culinary students who receive class credit for working in the kitchen at Sunriver. They receive the same wages as other entry-level employees at the resort, typically between $11 and $15 per hour, O’Shea said.
He added that international workers pay a stipend to live in houses, which are primarily subsidized by the resort, with five to seven other students. Johnson added that students are expected to pay their own travel expenses.
The international students go through the same two-day orientation as other employees, and those who have a longer commute are provided with complimentary bicycles to get to and from their posts, O’Shea said.
Sunriver would not allow reporters from The Bulletin to speak with an international worker for the story.
For the students, the jobs are frequently used as a jumping-off point to travel in America, Johnson said.
The J-1 visa allows visitors to arrive in the United States 30 days before their programs begin, and to stay for 30 days after they conclude, giving students a chance to explore the region.
Johnson added that the resort will arrange day trips within Central Oregon, to events like the Sisters Rodeo and Bend Elks games, which give employees a sense of the area.
Said O’Shea, “When I was young, if I’d gotten the chance to explore Central Oregon, I definitely would have done so.”
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