Resorts Increasingly Turning to Foreigners for Service Jobs

Becky Pallack, Arizona Daily Star, January 20, 2008

You don’t see people lining up to become hotel housekeepers.

Maybe that’s not shocking, but it’s a growing problem for Tucson’s resort hotels, industry executives say, and it’s at the heart of the national debate about a guest-worker program.

Hospitality is a major industry here. Combined, the largest seven resorts need around 4,500 workers to keep tourists comfortable.

Increasingly, the resorts rely on foreign labor for the daily work of cleaning rooms, washing sheets and dishes, and preparing food.

At Loews Ventana Canyon Resort and Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa, foreigners with seasonal work permits, called H-2B visas, make up 7 percent of the staff.

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“Those positions are constantly open. I never turn down a qualified person for a housekeeping position who is legal,” said Brian Johnson, managing director of Loews.

Industry groups are lobbying for more visas, but in an election year when the temporary visa issue has been tossed in with the hot topic of illegal immigration and the economy may be entering recession, the climate isn’t favorable for change.

Some argue the resorts should allow the free market to correct the problem.

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Before the resort started hiring guest workers, there was constant turnover, Johnson said.

Advertising, job fairs and extra recruiting in schools and churches brought in few applications. To get by, the company paid overtime and used a temporary-labor contractor to fill staffing holes.

The company doesn’t hire illegal entrants, Johnson said. Loews began checking the legal work status of all new hires five years ago using E-Verify, a federal program made mandatory under the new Legal Arizona Workers Act.

It’s the same story at the Westin. For the first time, the company is employing 30 seasonal visa workers from the Philippines, making up 7 percent of the resort’s 425 employees. General manager Bill Petrella said he’d like to hire 50 H-2B workers next year to fill more seasonally vacant jobs.

Seeking willing workers

Petrella would rather hire American workers, he said.

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Still, starting pay is low compared with other jobs. A housekeeping position at the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort is listed in the Pima County One Stop job bank at $7 an hour, 10 cents above the state minimum wage.

The average wage for housekeepers in Tucson is $8.30 an hour, according to the Arizona Department of Commerce Research Administration. The average wage for housekeepers has grown faster than inflation most years, increasing an average 3.4 percent a year for the past six years.

The H-2B workers cost employers more. The company must pay a recruiter, pay application fees, secure housing for the workers and shuttle them to and from work.

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Resorts can increase wages and still not see applicants, said Debbie Johnson, president of the Arizona Hotel and Lodging Association, which is lobbying for more H-2B visas.

If the resorts can’t hire visa workers, they’ll likely be forced to increase wages. Rising labor costs would be passed on to customers, she said. That could mean lost business.

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‘Cheap, obedient labor’

Not everyone agrees government should intervene on the resorts’ behalf.

The perceived labor shortage is the market’s signal that the resorts should start scrambling to find new sources of labor and ways to use their existing staff more efficiently, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based group that supports tighter immigration controls.

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Saying that housekeeping and dishwashing are jobs Americans won’t do is gibberish, he said.

People who might want the jobs include racial-minority workers, college students, single moms who need flexible work schedules, older workers who want part-time jobs, refugees, high school dropouts, ex-prisoners and homeless people.

Marshall Vest, an economist with the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management, said there is a real long-term issue of where to find workers in a country with a low birthrate and an aging population.

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