Conflict in Ukraine Impacts Flathead Valley Seasonal Workforce

For some local businesses that rely on J-1 visa workers from Eastern Europe, the war in Ukraine has hindered summer staffing plans

By Denali Sagner
Constantin Varzaru prepares chicken tenders in the kitchen at the Whitefish Mountain Resort on June 24, 2022. Sarah Mosquera | Flathead Beacon

For cook and seasonal 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 .5 miles from the east entrance of Glacier National Park. Normally for St. Goddard, summer means hiring a full bench of workers to keep up with Glacier’s busy season, as thousands of campground guests and diners cycle through his doors. But this season, a lack of J-1 visa workers has left Johnson’s of St. Mary understaffed, forcing St. Goddard to cut back on normal operations. 

“It’s been tough,” St. Goddard said. “We’ve limited our menu. We’ve increased our prices. You have to do that across the board.” 

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

J-1 visa recipients have long supported the tourism economy of northwest Montana. The international exchange workers often come to the Flathead Valley to work as cooks, servers, housekeepers and support staff in the businesses in and around Glacier. The program is designed for workers to experience American life and culture while working in short-term, often seasonal, positions. 

Montana hosted 2,652 J-1 workers in 2018 and 2,844 in 2019, the majority of whom came on the summer work travel and student secondary 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 work visa issuances in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing the number of J-1 workers in Montana down to 206. Despite increased vaccinations and lifted domestic restrictions in 2021, backlogs at U.S. consulates and travel bans for foreigners kept J-1 visas at low levels. Montana was able to employ 1,159 J-1 holders in 2021, a more promising number than the year prior, but still far below typical numbers. 

Things were looking up this summer for businesses 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 away from the Flathead, would soon put a damper on Johnson’s of St. Mary’s summer operations.  

On May 2, the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), an American nonprofit organization that arranges international exchange programs, emailed St. Goddard to inform him that the summer J-1 workers he expected to join his restaurant would no longer be coming. 

“This year has brought unforeseen challenges when it comes to hiring, including the ongoing pandemic and the growing crisis between Ukraine and Russia. Overall, program-wide participation is softer than we anticipated when we started planning in the fall,” the email stated. “That said, we are sharing the unfortunate news that we will not be able to fill your positions for the upcoming Summer 2022 season.” 

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

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

St. Goddard has tried recruiting employees from the Blackfeet Reservation, where the restaurant and campground is located, but the expensive commute to Browning in the wake of rising gas prices has made finding new hires difficult. 

Whitefish Mountain Resort, one of the largest tourist attractions in the Flathead Valley, 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 slated to work at the mountain this summer, only 25 ultimately arrived. Several Russian students were unable to get visas, which WMR Public Relations Manager Chad Sokol believes may be due to the war. 

Luckily, the mountain has been able to supplement the lost Russian workers with other employees. Most of the positions on the roughly 125-person summer staff have been filled, a promising sign for this season. As of this time last year, WMR had only filled about 65% of its summer positions, due in large part to national labor shortages, J-1 backlogs and housing and childcare issues. 

“We’re not facing the same kind of scramble or shortfall in the labor force that we faced last summer,” Sokol said. “We’re doing really well in terms of hiring.” 

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

Cheri Hoff, co-owner of Glacier Highland motel in West Glacier, said that a few Ukrainian and Russian J-1 students applied to work in her motel for the summer, but ultimately faded out of the application process. She is unsure if this was due specifically to the war, but is grateful to have found sufficient workers elsewhere. Hoff was able to fill her housekeeping and support staff vacancies with other J-1 students, mostly from Mongolia and Turkey. 

The loss of Russian and Ukrainian J-1 workers has only compounded the many forces straining local businesses. Northwest Montana has felt the effects of national labor shortages in recent weeks and months, due in large part to a lack of affordable housing and adequate childcare options. 

Restaurants, campgrounds and lodges across the Flathead reported facing dire staffing shortages to the Beacon. Business owners described cutting down operating hours, building staff housing to entice new employees, hiring family and friends to fill vacancies and even taking on housekeeping work themselves. Many are still seeking out seasonal laborers to fill employment vacancies. 

While St. Goddard says he has adapted to a smaller staffer, he is hopeful he will be able to find employees to supplement the missing J-1’s, who he calls the “hardest workers ever.” If he cannot find new workers, Johnson’s of St. Mary—like many businesses in the area—may operate below its normal levels for the third summer in a row. 

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