Black Hills seasonal hiring facing challenges

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Every year, South Dakota welcomes nearly 3 million visitors, most of them to the Black Hills, where tourism is one of the largest parts of the economy. This places incredible stress on local businesses to meet the needs of these visitors.

Julie Schmitz Jensen, president and CEO of Visit Rapid City, says most of the visitors come between May and September, so businesses must rely on seasonal workers.

"The visitor industry touches so many businesses, both directly and indirectly,” Schmitz Jensen says. “So, getting enough employees, especially from May until September, it's a huge issue for our industry.”

Rick Greene, general manager of Rushmore Express Inn in Keystone, says that in small tourist towns, seasonal help can be especially difficult to find.

"Keystone is such a small town,” Greene says. “We're seasonal. I mean, we're a tourist town. There's no workforce you can really draw from."

Pennington County alone requires as many as 10,000 seasonal workers every year.

Businesses must often look out-of-state and abroad for workers, and one program they look at is the H-2B Temporary Worker Visa Program. It allows foreigners to come to the United States and work for up to six months.\

A $1.3 trillion appropriations bill recently signed by President Donald Trump allows the number of H-2B visas to be increased by as many as 63,000. But for that to happen, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) needs to take action.

However, until DHS raises number of visas allowed, businesses are worried that they won't be able to hire enough workers to open full-time.

"I'm on the Chamber [of Commerce], and a lot of the businesses have told me that they don't have any assurance that they have summer staff," Greene says.

Schmitz Jensen is concerned that businesses will have to cut services.

"What'll happen is they're going to have to open later in the season, close earlier in the season, or they're going to have to modify the hours of operation, and all of that impacts the economy," Schmitz Jensen says.

Organizations such as Visit Rapid City have been urging South Dakota's congressional representatives to support raising DHS visa caps And they have expressed support as seasonal employment is important not just to the Black Hills, but to the entire state.

"It's so crucial to not only the tourism industry but to the agriculture industry,” Schmitz Jensen said. “South Dakota relies the H-2B visa program to help fill our seasonal help needs."

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