They’re a critical part of Truckee/North Tahoe’s ski resort operations each winter. According to federal data from 2022, over 1,700 temporary workers — classified as J-1s by the U.S. government — work the lifts, shops, restaurants, and more here, then disappear as the high season winds down.

In the same year, just shy of 30,000 J-1s came to California — more than any other state; 5,610 of those were summer work travel participants, which is what the majority of local J-1s function as. This non-immigrant visa category is an avenue for individuals to experience life in the U.S. through a work- and study-based exchange program. Locally, many summer work travel participants, students from international universities, begin appearing in early December as ski resorts open their doors for the season, taking over houses and transportation, and roaming the sidewalks and roads on their way to work. They’re from all over, Latin and South America (where summer runs from mid-December through mid-March), parts of Europe, Asia, and beyond, and eager to experience working in a world-famous destination: Lake Tahoe.

Yet there exists an abject underbelly to the lofty program. The shortage of housing and public transit has a direct impact on how the exchange workers live during their tenure, adding fuel to the fire of what people across the country decry as cheap labor in untenable living situations. This winter, concern has percolated out of the Resort at Squaw Creek, a ski-in/ski-out hotel with multiple amenities that sits adjacent to Palisades Tahoe in Olympic Valley. The resort is managed by the Hyatt Hotels Corporation.


Both current and former employees, as well as those familiar with the situation, are disheartened by the lack of transportation, over-crowded and deteriorating housing, and general working conditions for J-1s at the resort.

“You wake up and the first thing you think is, ‘how am I going to work today?’” said Silvana Talavera, a J-1 from Peru working in retail for the resort. When shuttles are unavailable from her resort-run Alpine Meadows residence, the seven J-1s who live there must walk 45 minutes regardless of winter conditions to the closest available public transit location. Oftentimes, when they arrive, the Tahoe Area Regional Transit busses will end up not stopping because they’re full. It’s not uncommon, say exchange workers who are housed all over North Tahoe, to spend three hours getting to and from work, each way.

Until his work term ended on March 10, Luis Carhuatanta lived in a 7-bedroom, 6-bathroom resort-provided building in Tahoe Vista, one of 30 J-1s who resided there. Multiple housemates said they felt crowded when 16 of them had arrived earlier, with more to come.

At the job itself, frustrations ran rampant, says Patricio Cuenca, who works as a ski check attendant. “No one taught us what to do in our workplace,” he said. “We learned on our own. At first, we thought it was a beautiful place, but we quickly discovered that J-1s are given a bad treatment.”

The situation was bad enough that one colleague resigned in protest.

“I wasn’t having fun at work because I knew we could do better,” said Michael Whalley, who was employed at the resort up until early February. Whalley has spent his life working at different resorts across the Western U.S. in management positions overseeing work travel participants, and he said he’s never seen a situation this poor. “So I walked in and said, ‘Look, I’m done, I’m done.’ And they go, ‘Didn’t you know you just won an award?’ I go, ‘What did I win an award for?’ ‘Customer service. You’re the employee of the quarter.’ ‘Well, the employee of the quarter’s resigning because of the way you treat J-1s.’”

A 2022/23 work agreement for J-1s, shared with Moonshine Ink, shows that for resort-owned housing, certain facilities and amenities may or may not be included; for transportation, it is a worker’s “responsibility to get to and from my job and housing location … [The employee understands] that, depending on the location, public transportation (bus) may or may not be available (TART system), and that it is [their] responsibility to understand the costs and schedules of the public bus system.”

For comparison, Palisades Tahoe and Northstar California Resort provide shuttles for their employees, including J-1s. Some of these shuttle drivers told the Ink that they often pick up Resort at Squaw Creek J-1s because they feel guilty seeing the workers stranded. “[I want] the transportation [to] be more dignifying and prevent them from spending 12 hours to 13 hours of the day to get paid for six and a half,” a local shuttle driver said. Because this driver still works actively in the area and doesn’t want to jeopardize his job, he asked to remain unnamed. He did say, however, that he’s been aware of and frustrated by local J-1 working conditions for over a decade.

THIRTY PEOPLE, SEVEN BEDROOMS: This Tahoe Vista location is offered as a housing option for 30 resort J-1s, who told Moonshine Ink the home felt maxed out at 16 people. The residents deal with broken appliances, sleeping on the floor, and limited heating. Photo by Ted Coakley III/Moonshine Ink

Expectations and realities

Reportedly bad conditions aside, the Resort at Squaw Creek has succeeded where others have failed in becoming a host employer for J-1s in the region. Sonny Taylor, vice president with Janus International, a sponsor business that recruits exchange participants for companies across the U.S., said Janus has rejected several employers in the greater Tahoe area over the years because of their unwillingness to provide housing for the participants.

“One of the reasons we accepted the Resort at Squaw Creek was they’d made some arrangements [of safe housing for the J-1s] …” Taylor said. “What I saw firsthand on my visit [in January 2023] was they did, and I think the quality of the housing they found certainly was reasonable and not a concern.”

Taylor visited after hearing multiple complaints from the resort’s J-1s about housing conditions and transportation. “What I saw at the time was just about any business I went by or the locations that we had any participants, they were trying to survive these massive storms … the TART, it seems like they have had some challenges through the winter between the extreme weather and some of their own staff shortages.”

For the two days Taylor was in town, he said he heard the weather conditions impacted locals, employees, and guests on the roads. “They were all trying to adapt and do the best they could under the extreme weather,” he added. “I do remember in [a] meeting, the [Resort at Squaw Creek] HR folks pointed out that they had had several conversations with some of their departments about showing flexibility with arrival times in the event someone was delayed beyond their control … A late or full bus would certainly qualify. I left with the impression that they are making an attempt.”

This is Janus International’s first year sponsoring J-1s on a large scale at the Resort at Squaw Creek. Last winter, Taylor explained, a few participants ended up at the resort for a second job. Those J-1s had a good experience, he said, leading to 80 participants for the current 2022/23 season. Additional non-Janus exchange workers were also there for the season.

Yet one event at the resort stands out as being less than ideal, from Janus International’s point of view: On Feb. 10, the Hyatt-run hotel gave a one-week notice to 17 participants that they would be laid off. The reason given, as shared by J-1s like Carhuatanta, who was let go, was a lack of forecasted business. He finished out his exchange visa as a server assistant at the Hyatt Regency in Incline Village.

Carhuatanta says he tried to meet with a manager to understand why he, specifically, was let go from the Resort at Squaw Creek but didn’t receive a response. “I wanted to know why me because I was trying to look for something to make [the work] easier for everyone, and my supervisor was always telling me ‘good job.’ And she was always seeing me working … I still don’t know why me.”

Janus International was notified on Feb. 9 about the layoffs. Taylor said he has not seen this happen often, “with the one exception being when the [Covid-19] pandemic started.” The main challenge, he added, is that because of the timing, “most other employers would not consider hiring these participants with, on average, only one month or so of legal employment eligibility left. Finding a new employer for a summer work travel participant is not always easy, but the odds would have been much better if this would have happened in mid-December instead of mid-February.” The maximum length of the summer work travel program is four months, plus a 30-day grace period for travel. Students must be back in their home country by the time university term begins. Of those Janus-sponsored participants who were let go, as of press deadline, three found jobs at other resorts, some continued to look for work, and others returned home.

“The employee of the quarter’s resigning because of the way you treat J-1s.”

~ Michael WhalLey

Those let go from the resort had until the end of February to find housing not offered by the Resort at Squaw Creek. Because Carhuatanta finished his work term at another Hyatt-run property, he was able to stay at the Tahoe Vista house.

One resort J-1 told the Ink in passing that those let go deserved it because they weren’t fulfilling their job duties.

To Moonshine’s list of questions for the resort, including context around the layoffs, General Manager Manfred Steuerwald shared in a statement, “While we are unable to comment on personnel matters, we can confirm the resort is staffed based on occupancy levels which can vary throughout the year.”

While the resort did not share the figures for J-1s let go in February, the Ink confirmed some working through other sponsors were also laid off. Taylor said he heard the number totaled 28.

“Our policy is that we reevaluate every location every year for a multitude of reasons, which can include whether the business has a seasonal need, whether they continue to meet the requirements to be a host employer,” Taylor said. He did not comment on whether the Resort at Squaw Creek will be considered next year as an employer site.

Find your own ride

Shortly before Taylor visited Tahoe, resort retail employee Talavera, also from Peru, and her roommates were finding transportation to work any way they could.

This is Talavera’s second time as a summer work travel participant J-1. “That’s why I can compare the different points of view,” she said. “Last year I worked with Hyatt [in Palm Springs], and it was a beautiful experience … And that’s why I decide to come here because I think, okay, if it’s Hyatt, it’s going to be that same trait. That’s what I think.”

For the first couple of weeks after she arrived on Dec. 16, 2022, everything was going well: She had her own room and transportation to and from the resort for her full-day shifts. Then, on the evening of Dec. 30, all J-1s being housed by the resort received an email from the human resources director, Jenny Rice: Shuttles provided by the resort were being reduced and consolidated. No specific reason was provided, and, as stated in the work agreement, didn’t need to be as the resort never promised transportation.

Rice encouraged J-1s to get creative. “If students are not able to use or wish not to use any of the provided transportation, we ask that they utilize Uber, Lyft, a ride from friends or colleagues, bike riding, walking, etc.,” Rice wrote in the email. “Part of the students cultural exchange program is learning how to live in the U.S. and be able to find resources on their own.”

Talavera and her roommates initially thought they’d still be able to use the shuttle service, but the morning of Jan. 2, they waited outside their Alpine Meadows house for a van that never came. They then walked the 2 miles to the closest TART bus stop at River Ranch Lodge & Restaurant, again waited for a TART bus that didn’t show up, and ultimately had to get a ride from a resort manager; Talavera was four hours late for her shift that day.

“My parents always said, ‘Oh yeah, I had to walk for 40 miles uphill both ways,’” joked Whalley, who worked with Talavera in the retail shop. “These kids are literally doing that, and they don’t necessarily have all the protective gear. They come here and a lot of them didn’t have gloves.”

The anonymous transit driver mentioned earlier shared with Moonshine Ink that a few years ago he heard of Resort at Squaw Creek J-1s hitchhiking from Truckee along State Route 89 to make their 11:30 p.m. swing shift. “They’ve been left to fend for themselves,” the driver said.

Hitchhiking is always discouraged by Janus International, Taylor said, but many J-1s have resorted to the method in order to make their shifts. “We take rides because that’s the only way we have to go to work,” Talavera said. “It’s not a better option, but I mean, if the bus doesn’t come [and] you walk, it’s like two hours.”

One morning, Talavera was walking to the River Ranch bus stop alone down Alpine Meadows Road when she was offered a ride by a man who appeared to be in his 70s.

“He say to me, he’s going another place,” she recalled. “And I say, okay, it’s okay if you leave me at the River Ranch because I can take the shuttle. And then we came to River Ranch, and then I am like, ‘Okay, bye, thank you.’ But he locked the door.”

The man told Talavera he wanted to talk with her a bit longer and refused to unlock the doors.

“I am just saying, ‘Ah, I want to, but I have to work. I go to work because if they fire me, I don’t have nothing to do because I’m not from here,’” Talavera said. “Saying things like that, I’m saying, ‘No, I don’t want [to go]’, because if I say, ‘I don’t want to stay with you, I just want to get out,’ I see a serious problem … And he say to me, ‘Okay. Just for this time.’ And opened the door.”

Talavera said she sprinted across the street to the TART bus stop to wait.

“But the worst thing of this was the snowing,” she said. “Was raining too. I just stayed with a man I don’t know, who [maybe] wants to kill me, and I have to wait for the bus … and the bus never comes.” For 20 minutes after she got out, she says the man was parked in the car watching her before eventually driving off. After an hour of waiting, she ended up hitchhiking with a different random driver to get to work.

When she shared her experience with resort staff and during a meeting with Janus International, Talavera says her fears initially fell on unsympathetic ears. The housing manager, she said, told her in front of other J-1s, “I’m not going to play your game.”

Now, through a combination of TART, neighboring resort transit, fellow employees with cars, the Mountaineer shuttle serving Alpine Meadows and Olympic Valley on certain days, and re-established Resort at Squaw Creek shuttles on other days, Talavera and her roommates are managing to find rides to and from work.

NO ROOM ON THE BUS: J-1s working at the Resort at Squaw Creek are not provided consistent transportation and must find their way to work on their own. Photo by Ted Coakley III/Moonshine Ink

Home away from home

Cuenca lives at a Dollar Point house procured by the resort.

“At the beginning, we were eight in total, in a house that is clearly for no more than six people,” he told the Ink. “It does not have a refrigerator prepared for so many people, and also, when we arrived there were no basic elements for a house such as dishes and pots. The oven was also so dirty that we could not use it until [Feb. 23].”

Across the resort housing, which extends to spots in Incline Village, J-1s are sleeping on the floor, sharing beds with each other, and climbing up 20-foot icy snowbanks to access their front doors. Many requests for the resort’s housing manager, Driss Jammi, to address broken appliances and furniture have gone unanswered.

“Sometimes the 30 of us have to talk to [Jammi] to get one reply,” Carhuatanta said of the Tahoe Vista home, where, as of press deadline, a clothes dryer doesn’t work and the dishwasher only recently started functioning (“I think,” said Carhuantanta) because the residents fixed it. Each J-1 living there pays $725 in rent per month.

There’s a rumor among the resort’s J-1s that other exchange visitors in Tahoe, such as at Northstar and Palisades, have it better. Ashlee Lambert, communications manager for Northstar, stated, “We don’t share employee numbers at a resort-by-resort level, but I can share that less than 10% of our winter workforce are J-1 students across our portfolio of resorts, and that percentage is pretty consistent at the resort level. J-1 students are required to secure their own housing and affirm via their sponsor agency that they have housing before arriving. We also offer quite a few resources, perks, and support systems for all of our employees, J-1s or otherwise.”

A May 2022 article by University of Nevada, Reno journalism students, titled Vail Resorts Increasingly Turn to J-1 Visa Exchange Program for Cheap Labor, Leaving Locals in Lurk [sic], looked into J-1 conditions at Northstar, interviewing then-J-1s who commented on the challenges of housing and low pay. A source said J-1s comprised 80% of Northstar’s staff that winter. Resort communications manager Ashlee Lambert refuted this estimate, saying last season’s J-1 percentage was “slightly above average but still just a small portion of our total staff.”

Palisades Tahoe has brought in 268 J-1 participants this season, according to public relations manager Patrick Lacey. “Aside from normal TART services, we are sending our buses to the Tahoe City Transit Center at the following times: 6:30 a.m., 7:30 a.m. (twice), 9:30 a.m., 4:15 p.m., and 5:15 p.m.,” he wrote in an email. “We are also picking up employees any time that the TART service has a shortfall or not enough capacity to keep up with the demand.”

“I think the Resort [at Squaw Creek] is a little more cruel,” said the unnamed transit driver, who has worked at multiple resorts in the area. “[Palisades] is a little bit more humane [because they] provide transportation for [the J-1s].”

The J-1s living in Resort at Squaw Creek housing have their rent deducted from their paychecks every month. The work agreement one employee shared with Moonshine showed an hourly wage of $16. Participants must also pay federal, state, and local taxes. For most of them, workers told Moonshine, by the end of their tenure their finances are a wash, while some will have made a little bit, and others will even lose money with gaps filled by cash sent from home during their stay.

“Right around now is when they actually are breaking even,” said the driver, who transports numerous J-1s each day. “Now they’re just starting to get some money they can bring home.” This person believes the Tahoe-area resorts should subsidize housing for the J-1s.

“I think we have lost the meaning of what dignity is,” he continued. “We think it’s okay to not give people their dignity. You spend $5,000 to come up here [J-1s pay their way to and from their job abroad], you work the hours that they’re demanding, and you put up with all this … You should have some dignified transportation and housing. Crashing on a couch for three months — it’s not the ’80s anymore.”

Taylor with Janus International pointed out that the J-1 cultural exchange program “is not simply to work to earn money. A lot of emphasis is put on this, understandably, because the exchange visitor hopes to take money home at the end of their program. Depending on what country they are returning to, taking into account conversion rates and per capita income, sometimes participants on these seasonal programs are able to earn more than they would at home.”

Chance for improvement

Tahoe isn’t the only winter destination dealing with less-than-ideal conditions for its exchange visitors. Reporting from Park City, Utah, and Keystone, Colorado, published this February, highlights poor working and housing conditions as well.

Transit answers at other destinations (see this story about an innovative transportation solution in Utah) could apply here. A better ride system, Whalley said (and the anonymous transit driver agreed), for J-1s of the Resort at Squaw Creek would go a long way. Anything would be better than the status quo, he added. “There were literally 30, maybe 40 kids sleeping all over the [resort] cafeteria, sleeping on everything because they have to get up at like 4:30 a.m. to catch [transportation] at 6. They don’t have to work till 9, sometimes 10, but they have to stay there until they work. They get off work and … there’s no transportation to get them home. The mass transit system is so overwhelmed that they have to wait sometimes two, three hours at a bus stop where the buses, when they’re full, just drive past.”

Covid-19 impacted TART operations and staffing (particularly with bus drivers), explained Placer County Deputy CEO Stephanie Holloway on why the system is overwhelmed. “We fully intend every year, and we budget accordingly, to provide [a high] level of service,” she said. “It’s the staffing challenge we’re running up against.”

Holloway added that area resorts help with TART operations by providing funding through Transient Occupancy Tax and Tourism Business Improvement District dollars, which heavily fund transit each year. “They used to provide bus passes to their employees,” she said. “We went to free fare, so they stepped up and said we’ll give you the equivalent dollars to help with that system.”

Of the Resort at Squaw Creek, she said that while the business does not explicitly offer employee shuttling like others, “they are a heavy TOT contributor.”

The TART bus driver interviewed for this story urged taking action. “If I know that there is already a problem [with the number of J-1s and a shortage of public transit availability], why am I not going to be proactive and figure out how we are going to go and tell TART […] we need more workers?”

Whalley, who’s spent hours of his time giving the exchange participants rides to and from their houses, and even to and from Reno to buy supplies, wants the exchange visitors to know that their lives are worth more than the conditions they’ve signed up for. “There’s a lot of amazing young people [here],” he said. “Who knows what one of these people might invent that might help our world? But the way we’re treating them, why would they want it?”

Even still, some of the J-1s who spoke with Moonshine Ink recognize their time at the Resort at Squaw Creek isn’t representative of all exchanges.

“This is a bad experience, but I know all the work and travel are not like this,” Talavera said. She doesn’t plan on returning to Tahoe as a J-1. Others said they would consider coming back if they were assured they wouldn’t have to work at the resort.


  • Alex Hoeft

    Alex Hoeft joined Moonshine staff in May 2019, happy to return to the world of journalism after a few years in community outreach. She has both her bachelor's and Master's in journalism, from Brigham Young University and University of Nevada, Reno, respectively. When she's not journalism-ing, she's wrangling her toddler or reading a book — or doing both at the same time.

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