It’s off-season in Big Sky. Snow has receded on the mountains that skiers travel from around the world to explore.

A two-lane road leading away from the town center winds roughly five miles up a mountain before it hits the gates of the Yellowstone Club. People can gain access past that point after buying a multi-million dollar house, covering roughly $300,000 in sign-up fees and paying annual dues. A private jet service caters to the members and, according to the club, ex-Secret Service agents guard its entrance.

“Yellowstone Club provides an unparalleled level of luxury and exclusivity, along with its rustic Montana charm,” according to documents the club submitted to the U.S. Department of Labor last year.

The club shares a five-mile border with one of the area’s largest employers, Big Sky Resort. With 5,850 acres of skiable terrain, the resort calculates even on its busiest day, there are about two acres per skier.

The two places have something else in common. They recruit people from abroad for jobs like cooking meals, cleaning rooms and parking cars through the town’s busiest season. Food banks in Gallatin County have noticed.

Big Sky Community Food Bank coordinator Sarah Gaither Bivins said like most resort towns, housing and daily needs like groceries are expensive there. Gaither Bivins said she recorded 225 first-time clients over the last year, which she said included visits from people who worked for Big Sky Resort through a cultural exchange program called the J-1 Visa.

“About once a season, Big Sky shift managers will drive a bus down of J-1 students to pick up food,” Gaither Bivins said.

In Bozeman, Jill Holder is the director of food and nutrition programs at the Human Resource Development Council. She said Bozeman acts as housing overflow for many Big Sky workers. Gallatin Valley Food Bank intake forms recorded 102 people from resorts in Big Sky who picked up food this winter. She said more than half of those visitors were people who traveled from Jamaica to work for the Yellowstone Club.

Both Holder and Gaither Bivins said their concern isn’t the cost of feeding temporary workers. They’re worried people far from home don’t fully understand the program they sign up for or arrive without enough resources.

Both Big Sky Resort and Yellowstone Club declined interview requests but responded to questions from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle with emailed statements.

Big Sky Resort said its visa holder employees work 32 hours per week, have subsidized housing and wages “consistent with American employees in the same positions.”

Yellowstone Club applications for international workers over the winter show pay varied across job types. Wages started at $11 for servers and $12 for valet attendants and climbed as high as $20 for maintenance engineers, all with a 35-hour workweek. Optional employee housing and a $200 gift card to buy winter clothes or other needs on first arrival could come out of those paychecks.

In a statement, a spokesperson wrote that the Yellowstone Club management hasn’t heard anything to indicate its visa workers were using a local food bank.

“While Yellowstone Club strives to provide competitive pay and benefits, we recognize that personal circumstances of all our workers, regardless of visa status, varies substantially from person to person and from time to time,” the statement said.

Sheldon Brown is the Jamaican government’s liaison officer assigned to the Montana workers to ensure their welfare. In an emailed statement to the Chronicle he said he had traveled to Montana, met with all of the Yellowstone Club’s Jamaican workers “and at no time was the access to food or any shortages of food mentioned.”

Both Holder and Gaither Bivins said they don’t always know the backstory that leads someone to use a food bank. But as the town’s reliance on hiring workers from outside the country grows, it has the people who offer those safety net services wondering whether something needs to change.

“Part of the reality of all working people in Big Sky is that at some point, all of us have had to use the food bank,” Gaither Bivins said. “But it seems like if we’re going to invite people to our community, our country, we should be able to take care of them really well. I think that means preparing them well enough that they wouldn’t have to use the food bank.”

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It’s not new for Montana employers to look to workers from afar to fill jobs.

Last year alone, more than 2,700 people arrived in Montana through a cultural exchange that paired international students and some educators with work experience. Of those, 373 arrived in Big Sky with those J-1 Visas.

Each visa category comes with its own set of hoops. Once someone arrives, their temporary place in the country is tethered to the employer listed on their documents.

Roughly three years ago, Yellowstone Club began accepting workers through J-1 visas. The next year, the club recruited people through H-2B visas, a program in which employers look outside the U.S. for temporary nonagricultural workers.

In its applications last year, the club told the Department of Labor it was struggling to find people willing to fill its jobs.

Yellowstone Club said 83 people arrived in Big Sky from Jamaica on H-2B visas for the 2017-2018 winter. This past season, the club hired 230 people from Jamaica.

Stacie Mesuda, a spokeswoman for Big Sky Resort, said she didn’t know how far back the resort’s work with the J-1 program dates. College students select Big Sky as their destination after Skype or in-person interviews with resort recruiting staff. Mesuda said the program represents “a small, albeit valued portion of the labor force at Big Sky Resort.”

“Big Sky Resort, as well as the larger ski and outdoor industries as a whole, participates in the J-1 visa program, a cultural and educational exchange program that enables international students from all over the world to experience this beautiful part of the country,” Mesuda wrote in a statement.

On a recent afternoon at the Big Sky Community Food Bank, people browsed goods in the store’s single-room stock of food. Some of the shelves were labeled for those who only had a microwave to cook with. A room down a hall had a supply of hats, coats, sheets and hotel-style shampoo bottles — most of which local businesses donated.

Gaither Bivins said there was a time when people didn’t think Big Sky needed a food bank.

“There’s resources here, you can see it in these big, beautiful, empty houses,” she said. “I think consciousness is coming around that there are needs and there are resources. Now the town is figuring out how to tie the needs with the resources. It’s a town that cares.”

She said the same resorts with employees who rely on the food bank have people who volunteer there. Some J-1 visa holders come from other resorts in the area but Gaither Bivins said since Big Sky Resort has a larger workforce, the majority of workers she meets are from there.

She believes shift managers who drop off international students for food are trying to help.

“In some circumstances, I don’t think the students quite understand what the food bank is or where this food comes from,” she said. “I tell the managers that if the students need more support, they should reach out to their sponsors too. That doesn’t seem to happen.”

The sponsor students work with is the Council on International Education Exchange. The organization said in a statement it encourages all program participants to call for help or advice if they have any issues with their work or living situation.

Jill Holder, of the Gallatin Valley Food Bank in Bozeman, said this was the first winter food bank staff noticed international workers from the resorts arriving for food. She said they walked more than two miles round-trip from their hotels, which acted as spillover housing for the workers.

“It was so cold in February that I felt so bad for them,” Holder said. “It’s not a horrible distance, but it is when it’s zero and there were some brutal days, especially because they’re from Jamaica.”

She said food bank staff, volunteers and occasionally local clients gave people rides back to their hotels. Since the workers didn’t have a lot of food storage and were carrying their groceries when on foot, the food bank increased how often they could pick up supplies.

Holder said the people she got to know weren’t the typical crowd excited to work in a ski town for a season. They were people who wanted to send money home and leave with some savings.

“Our job here is to feed people and we’re good with that. When people come in and feel like they don’t have a voice or they don’t have power, that’s when I feel like we have to do a little bit more,” Holder said.

“What can we do to resolve the problem? Is it more information upfront? Is it just knowing that the food banks are expected to help fill a gap, which we can do. Just, what can we do so those folks don’t come to Montana and end up being hungry and not knowing what to do.”

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In Nicholas Douglas’ hometown of Kingston, Jamaica, people leaving for temporary jobs overseas is common.

The work of the more than 1 million people who live in the metropolitan area largely hinges on hospitality. Douglas said there’s a chance to earn more money through short-term visas.

He was among the first 83 people to arrive in Big Sky on the program in 2017. Though it was his first time with an H-2B Visa, he wasn’t concerned. The chef had worked in kitchens for roughly 16 years and he had been away from home before.

“Yellowstone [Club] picked me,” Douglas said in a recent phone interview. “Approximately after the second interview, I was selected for the job.”

Within roughly five months of the season ending, Douglas was one of five people who filed a complaint in U.S. District Court against Yellowstone Club alleging unfair treatment. They included a cook, two bartenders and a housekeeper.

Yellowstone Club doesn’t believe the allegations and is vigorously defending the lawsuit.

“These claims were brought by a very small group of H-2B workers, and to our knowledge are not at all representative of the views and work experiences of the more than 80 H-2B Visa workers who worked at Yellowstone Club during the winter of 2017-2018,” the club said in a statement.

The statement said many of those workers returned for a second season.

The lawsuit says the plaintiffs agreed to work in Montana after promises they would be taken care of as Yellowstone Club employees. Instead of the “American opportunity promised,” their winter was riddled with disappointment, illegally low pay and discrimination, according to the complaint.

The complaint alleges the Jamaican workers were told they were employees of temp agency Hospitality Staffing Solutions LLC — also named in the complaint — after they arrived. The lawsuit says because of that, they didn’t receive the same benefits as club employees for the same work.

Yellowstone Club said Hospitality Staffing Solutions’ expertise was helpful to navigate the visa program during its first H-2B program experience. They said after that winter, the club directly hired staff with some help from a recruitment company.

Attorney David Seligman with Towards Justice based in Colorado is representing the plaintiffs in the case. He said there are few safety nets for the temporary international workers while there are a lot of benefits for the businesses that hire them.

“Those workers are basically indentured to you, by the terms of their visa they are stuck with you,” he said. “You can find common violations. People are sold a bill of goods, they are lied to about what kind of benefits they will be provided, similar to our [Yellowstone Club] case and what we allege.”

When it comes to reporting cases of fraud or unfair treatment in the H-2B program, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offers an email: ReportH2BAbuse@uscis.dhs.gov. A spokesperson for the department said it wouldn’t disclose how many people send messages to that email, how investigations happen after a new message arrives or how many of those claims are ruled legitimate.

In recent years, Jamaican news services reported cases of fraud tangled in the temporary work programs. A large chunk of that happens when someone hands money to a recruiter then never gets called for work. The Jamaican Ministry of Labour has said it’s working to ensure people are educated about how to avoid issues in the programs.

Many people continue to take work overseas. The ministry has a pool of workers waiting to get temporary jobs abroad.

From April to June in 2018 — about the time the first Yellowstone Club crew returned home from Montana — nearly 7,200 people from Jamaica were placed in the ministry’s overseas employment program.

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Yellowstone Club officials called the H-2B program a “win-win” for the club, its members and its partnership with the Jamaican Embassy.

“The vast majority of these employee have been excellent workers who made valuable contributions to YC and our employee culture,” the club said in a statement.

They said they’re not aware of any complaints of unfair treatment from this past winter and added that, like the year before, there are employees through the international program with plans to return next winter.

“That seems to demonstrate workers got the experience they expected when they first signed up,” the club said.

Yellowstone Club has said their need for workers will only increase.

Documents the club filed with the U.S. Department of Labor say the club added roughly 510,000 square feet of building in 2017 and 2018 in what it described as one of the largest private real estate construction projects in Montana. There’s more to come over the next two years, according to the documents.

Yellowstone Club’s application contracts from last winter spell out a lot of the fine print of what someone signs up for.

The club agreed to cover the international workers’ trip to Bozeman as long as they completed 50% of their contract period. If the person stays throughout the season and doesn’t have another job lined up elsewhere, Yellowstone Club would also pay “reasonable costs of return transportation.” The same would happen if they dismissed an employee early.

Employee housing for those who got into it costs between $300 and $500 a month with free transportation to work. In its statement, Yellowstone Club said employees also have some chances for free meals while on the job.

The Yellowstone Club Community Foundation has been donating to the Gallatin Valley Food Bank since 2010 and the Big Sky Food Bank since 2015. The club said the total donations to date are $663,000 and added it “will continue to donate additional funds in the future.”

“We hope that the food banks remain a resource for individuals in need within the Big Sky and Bozeman community regardless of employment, race or immigration status,” the statement said.

On a recent afternoon in Big Sky, Gaither Bivins said the majority of the food bank’s more than 200 new clients a year are gone after a winter. She remembers a student who came back to Big Sky Resort a second year who said they returned because it looked good on their resume to become a hotelier.

Gaither Bivins said each person’s story is complicated.

“My hope is that employers build supportive systems for everybody here, that if their employees need the food bank it’s not a shock,” she said. “It’s easy to overlook other people’s needs when you’re in a town that’s on vacation all the time.”

As for Douglas — one of the 83 who arrived at Yellowstone Club in 2017 — he’s continued to find work in the United States.

In the last year, he worked for a business in South Carolina. He likes traveling and finding new ways to cook and added the big pull has been the money the work can offer. He plans to continue to work through the H-2B Visa and see where he lands next.

“I realized not everywhere is the same,” Douglas said. “It can work through the program, if you find the right place.”

Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628. Follow her on Twitter @K_Hought.

Katheryn Houghton is the city government and health reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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